When time becomes a loop

I’ve just read an article on the Huffington Post, titled What Happens When You Die? Evidence Suggests Time Simply Reboots, by a guy named Robert Lanza. I had never heard of him, but that is completely my fault, for according to the author description I just linked to he is one of the greatest scientists currently walking on the face of the planet… seriously:

Robert Lanza was taken under the wing of scientific giants such as psychologist B.F. Skinner, immunologist Jonas Salk, and heart transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard. His mentors described him as a ‘genius,’ a ‘renegade thinker,’ even likening him to Einstein himself [..] Robert Lanza is considered one of the leading scientists in the world

Anyway, these are just words and sarcasm is easy, and the rest of his resume actually does list some impressive achievements in the field of stem cell research.

But that makes the nonsense written by Lanza, M.D., Scientist, Theoretician, only more baffling. It is rather disappointing that nowhere in the article Lanza even coherently addresses the question (nor the answer!) posed in the title of his piece. Instead we get a rambling anecdote that is too boring and lengthy to repeat here, followed by the following horrendous paragraph of gibberish:

Before he died, Einstein said “Now Besso [an old friend] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us … know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In fact, it was Einstein’s theory of relativity that showed that space and time are indeed relative to the observer. Quantum theory ended the classical view that particles exist if we don’t perceive them. But if the world is observer-created, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s destroyed with each of us. Nor should we be surprised that space and time vanish, and with them all Newtonian conceptions of order and prediction.

Aside from doctor Lanza, it would be very difficult to find a Scientist, Theoretician who does not at least roll his eyes upon reading such tripe. There is so much misunderstanding packed together here in a few sentences that it is almost a pity that no abuse of the concept of entropy has been thrown in for good measure.

the theory of relativity

Space and time being relative to the observer in the theory of relativity only means that the spatial and temporal relation between different physical objects depends on their relative motion. Such physical objects can be anything, elementary particles, galaxies, scientists, theoreticians. Any object A moving towards an object B will be, as far as B is concerned, shortened in length. For B, object A will also be perceived to pass through time more slowly. For example, this is the reason we can receive cosmic rays on earth. These are caused by particles that are accelerated in distant galaxies to enormous speeds and are extremely short-lived before falling apart -short lived in relation to anything moving along at the same velocity, that is. It is due to the relative velocity between earth and the cosmic ray particle that the two manage to meet each other before the latter falls apart.

Nowhere in the above the observer plays an active role. Although profound in its implication for the structure and interconnection of space and time (now mathematically merged in a single concept spacetime), the special theory of relativity is essentially all about coordinate transformations between different reference frames. Nothing really changes when moving from one frame of reference to another, in the same way that the world is not destroyed and made whole again but different when I choose to use spherical coordinates instead of x,y,z when charting the walk between my home and my workplace.

In the general theory of relativity a complication is added. Again something which has profound implications for the structure of spacetime, but again nothing that elevates the observer to a special status. According to general relativity the structure of space time is altered by the presence of matter (or energy), so in a very real sense everyone makes a dent in spacetime. But this has nothing to do with observing or experiencing spacetime, the dent would be just as big if one is, in the words of Lanza, rotting in the ground. When performing scientific calculations, the bookkeeping of the local structure of spacetime is done via a mathematical tool called a metric (a four-by-four matrix). An abstraction of a ruler, a set square and a watch mixed into one, this stores the local connections between angles and space and time intervals. Cosmology and the big bang are all about the values of the metric becoming zero as one goes further into the past

Actually relativity theory has not rendered time an illusion either. Although purely within the framework of relativity theory the difference between time and space can almost be reduced to a single minus sign in the metric mentioned above -which is perhaps what prompted Einstein’s remark. But within physics as a whole the arrow of time firmly points in one direction: the future. Unfortunately we are running out of space on this blog entry and not even Lanza mentioned entropy, so lets not pursue this further but move on to quantum mechanics.

quantum mechanics

Perhaps no single topic in physics has been hijacked as much for the purpose of New Age mumbo jumbo as quantum mechanics. The idea that a measurement alters that what is measured has proven irresistible. However, when you get down to it, it is really not this aspect of quantum mechanics that is so weird. Of course a measurement alters that what is measured, for a measurement is precisely that: an interaction between the means of the measurement and the measured object. When we touch a wall to feel what it is like, we have altered it, but in practice we won’t notice that because a macroscopic object like a wall is far less delicate than a single particle that has been specially isolated from its surroundings in a laboratory. Prod the latter and you are bound to make an impact. But that is because of the prodding, both the particle and the wall couldn’t care less about the conciousness and thoughts of the Scientist, Experimenter doing the prodding.

There is a a genuinely difficult and counterintuitive aspect to quantum mechanics however, but it does not mean that particles cease to exist when they are not perceived. It is this: like space and time in relativity’s spacetime, certain properties of particles are interconnected in a way that is counterintuitive to us because we are used to the blunted relationships between material objects on a macroscopic level, like the wall, with the properties of the individual particles making up things remaining invisible to us. This interconnectedness means that when we measure for example the position of a particle, we necessarily change its momentum as well. It is not possible to measure both position and momentum of a particle simultaneously; once we exactly manage to narrow down its position at a given moment in time we will be clueless by default about where it will be directly afterwards. We could keep running after the particle like a toddler Lanza running after dragonflies with his little net, but there will always be a fundamental uncertainty between position and momentum. An uncertainty that, again, has nothing to do with the mind of the observer, but everything with the akwardness in choice of the quantity that we choose to measure. Sometimes interactions between particles and other particles, or measurement apparatuses or whatever, will probe properties of a particle toward which it happened to be attuned at a given time. Then nothing changes for the particle. But if, for example, a particle is left alone after its position has been measured, it will gradually spread out again to occupy the empty space between its stated position and surrounding particles that repel it. When a new measurement of position is made, the particle may be forced in any particular position within this space. Which position will be random (the fact of this randomness is again a truly profound change in our understanding of reality, and arguably one of the things that drove Einstein to his deathbed in the first place). The particle did however not cease to exist in any way other than that it became less attuned to the ruler used to measure its position. In technical terms, all its quantum numbers, like mass, electric charge etc. remain solidly conserved.

To summarize a long story, Lanza may be a good scientist in his own field but when it comes to physics he is so clueless it is painful to read. I shudder at the thought of all those people tricked into reading his book biocentrism, for which I can only assume his Huffington Post piece was a badly thought out advertisement.

And what happens when time reboots and becomes a loop… Orbital knows.

[update:Seems I am far from the only one baffled by Lanza, Scientist, Theoretician, see Pharyngula]

2 Responses to When time becomes a loop

  1. Lavinia Whateley says:

    Excellent post. Quantum woo was the context in which I first heard of QM. Even then the flapdoodle seemed ridiculous, but some self-study and university courses have helped to learn a little about what we actually know.

    Discussions of what a measurement is do seem to be glossed over a bit too readily in most introductory textbooks, and that might be part of what’s contributing to the problem (though I know most quantum woo-meisters have probably never cracked one). Certainly your explanation that uncertainty is the result of trying to foist macroscopic quantities onto systems for which they are not well-defined should be made more explicit more often.

    Just for good measure, Robert Lanza and his Biocentrism idea have been taken down on multiple times on Scienceblogs, and PZ has a point that those articles could use some linkage. I hope that isn’t too presumptuous of me (if so, I figure you can always just delete this).

    Link to those posts? Can’t do that. PZ Myers explicitly requested we don’t link here, here or here, so you are awfully presumptuous indeed.

  2. […] discovering (almost accidentally) the existence of h. I discuss quantum uncertainty a little bit here as well. For now we have what we need in the existence of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: