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The Physics of Thought

Question: Does quantum mechanics speak at all to consciousness?

David Albert: Well, it's been thought to, and presumably it does in one way or another. There have certainly been episodes in the history of struggling with the measurement problem over the past 50 years or so when distinguished physicists -- for example, Eugene Wigner, Nobel prize winner, enormously distinguished theoretical physicist of the first half and middle of the 20th century -- became convinced around the middle of the century that consciousness was going to be an absolutely essential and ineliminable ingredient of any possible solution to the measurement problem that we were talking about before. You remember that the problem was that when we rip this box open we see an electron either here or there, but the fundamental quantum mechanical equations of motion, if you apply them as well to our brains, would seem to predict the opposite, okay, that we don't distinctly see an electron here or there; rather, our brains end up in a superposition of the state associated with seeing it here and the state associated with seeing it there. That is, our brains end up in some condition where it fails even to make sense where we believe the electron to be. Okay.

Wigner took a look at this situation and said, well, so apparently what's going on here is that our brain, or at the very least our mind, seems to be evolving in a way that directly violates these fundamental equations of motion. And Wigner's approach to this was, instead of seeing this as bad news, okay, to see it as the news we've been waiting for, you know, since the beginning of science. Here is finally a proof that the mind of the observer is not a physical object and is not tied to physical objects in the way that rocks are or tables are or chairs are, so on and so forth. That is, the reason that the fundamental equations applied to our brains end up making the wrong predictions -- so said Wigner -- was because our brains have this special additional feature of being associated with consciousness, okay?

And this had the sort of cute effect of turning the traditional mind/body problem on its head. Traditionally the worry has been that the picture of the world that's emerging from physics is hostile to mind, that there's no place for mind in it, that we can analyze everything in terms of the physics of our brains -- why I'm saying this, why I do everything I do, so on and so forth -- it's hostile to mind, it's hostile to all of these things that we associate with mind, like freedom of will, so on and so forth. Wigner thought he had an argument that as a matter of fact in quantum mechanics, precisely the opposite turns out to be true: not only is physics not hostile to the idea that there is a distinct nonphysical, mental thing intervening in the physical world; not only is it not hostile to that; it absolutely needs that in order to make the right predictions. It absolutely needs this mind to come in and violate the equations of motion in order to make this electron end up in one determine place or another, which is what we observe it doing. So Wigner thought first of all he had for the first time a clean mathematical definition of the difference between a physical entity and a mental entity. A physical entity is by definition an entity that obeys these equations of motion. A mental entity is the kind of entity that is capable of causing violations of those equations of motion. Good.

This sounds cute for about 10 minutes, but it quickly became embarrassing. I remember myself as a young graduate student being at conferences where Wigner would stand up and speculate that although dogs could likely cause violations of the equations of motion, mice probably couldn't. And it just became silly and embarrassing, and one didn't know where he was coming up with this, and one was going to be forced, in order to write down the fundamental physical laws in a clean way, to make these distinctions between conscious and not conscious; whereas what seems much more plausible to everybody is that there's some continuum going from conscious to not conscious, rather than some clean cutoff point. And it was just a mess. So this was a view that was entertained seriously for about a 15-year period from the early '50s, maybe, to the late '60s and hasn't been taken particularly seriously by physicists since then. On the other hand, the existence of this view in this earlier historical period has been a goldmine for New Age enthusiasms about quantum mechanics ever since then.

Do some of the essential findings of modern science rule out the possibility of free will? Is there a separation between mental and physical entities? Does it matter? The philosopher outlines a sometimes "silly" and "embarrassing" debate.

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.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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