Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst physics news article I have ever seen:
Every word in the title is wrong but “physics”. It’s not freaky, doesn’t prove anything we didn’t already know, and has nothing to do with parallel universes nor does it shed any light the question of their possible existence.
Look past the details of a wonky discovery by a group of California scientists — that a quantum state is now observable with the human eye — and consider its implications: Time travel may be feasible. Doc Brown would be proud.
Quantum states are visible to the naked eye all the time. Neon signs, laser pointers, and all kinds of other devices show quantum behavior at the macroscopic level. What this UC Santa Barbara group has done is impressive and important – they’ve put a tiny but macroscopic object into a superposition of macroscopic quantum states. This is a big deal, but the difference between this and everyday single-atom quantum mechanics is just one of scale. It’s not new physics. And time travel? It’s a category error on the scale of a reporter watching the Ottawa Senators play hockey and writing an article claiming they were the new lawmaking body of Canada.
The strange discovery by quantum physicists at the University of California Santa Barbara means that an object you can see in front of you may exist simultaneously in a parallel universe — a multi-state condition that has scientists theorizing that traveling through time may be much more than just the plaything of science fiction writers.
Bzzt. Quantum superposition is, again, a common and well-understood thing. The interest of this experiment is simply the fact that it can be done on a new energy scale. The multiple universes claim is an idea called “many worlds” that’s been kicked around for a long time as a hypothetical explanation for how quantum measurements work. This experiment is related to that idea in that it’s, well, a measurement – but not in any other way. And many-worlds doesn’t have anything to do with time travel anyway, that would be yet another category error. I can guarantee that not one scientist involved with the experiment believes or has intimated that this has any bearing on attending your mom’s prom in the 50s.
And it’s all because of a tiny bit of metal — a “paddle” about the width of a human hair, an item that is incredibly small but still something you can see with the naked eye.
UC Santa Barbara’s Andrew Cleland cooled that paddle in a refrigerator, dimmed the lights and, under a special bell jar, sucked out all the air to eliminate vibrations. He then plucked it like a tuning fork and noted that it moved and stood still at the same time.
That sounds contradictory, and it’s nearly impossible to understand if your last name isn’t Einstein. But it actually happened. It’s a freaky fact that’s at the heart of quantum mechanics.
The paddle, of course, did no such thing. It was originally in a superposition of states to be sure, but the whole point is that an observation puts it into one state or another. Before making the observation its state can only be characterized probabilistically, but clearly it’s not possible to look in a box and see that something is both moving and not moving. That would be an interaction with the environment, which destroys the superposition and forces it into one state or the other.
You don’t have to be Einstein, by the way. Sign up at your local college as a physics major and you’ll have a detailed mathematical understanding of this sort of thing roughly by your junior year. Pick up Chad’s book and you’ll have a qualitative understanding by next week.
Skipping a paragraph that’s a poor but passable description of quantum uncertainty we hit another train wreck:
What does it all mean? Let’s say you’re in Oklahoma visiting your aunt. But in another universe, where your atomic particles just can’t keep up, you’re actually at home watching “The Simpsons.” That may sound far-fetched, but it’s based on real science.
Really? Usually “real science” involves something called observational evidence. Try again, maybe in the universe where Fox assigned a competent writer to this article.
We’ll skip a little more, to this:
“Time seems to be a one-way street that runs from the past to the present,” says Fred Alan Wolf, a.k.a. Dr. Quantum, a physicist and author. “But take into consideration theories that look at the level of quantum fields … particles that travel both forward and backward in time. If we leave out the forward-and-backwards-in-time part, we miss out on some of the physics.”
Wolf says that time — at least in quantum mechanics — doesn’t move straight like an arrow. It zig-zags, and he thinks it may be possible to build a machine that lets you bend time.
This has a kernel of truth to it. Just like we use negative numbers to balance a checkbook despite the fact that you can’t literally have less than zero physical paper dollar bills, we sometimes use backward-time-traveling and faster-than-light and similar steps as bookkeeping devices in quantum field theory. But these are mathematical formalisms – he final result never involves anything measurable doing any of those things. And this experiment is not one that requires quantum field theory to explain in the first place.
Consider Sergei Krikalev, the Russian astronaut who flew six space missions. Richard Gott, a physicist at Princeton University, says Krikalev aged 1/48th of a second less than the rest of us because he orbited at very high speeds. And to age less than someone means you’ve jumped into the future — you did not experience the same present. In a sense, he says, Krikalev time-traveled to the future — and back again!
I’m pretty sure “sense” was not involved in the writing of this piece. Sure, Sergei experienced time dilation to a slight degree. But this isn’t time travel, it’s just a different reference frame. There was certainly no “back again”. At no point did anyone observe anyone’s clock running the wrong way.
Professor Gott is quoted in another paragraph which rather generously interprets some speculations in general relativity, and the article closes:
Cleland has proved that quantum mechanics scale to slightly larger sizes. The next challenge is to learn how to control quantum mechanics and use it for even larger objects. Do so — and we might be able to warp to parallel universes just by manipulating a few electrons.
“Our concepts of cause and effect will fly out the window,” says Ben Bova, the science fiction author. “People will — for various reasons — try to fix the past or escape into the future. But we may never notice these effects, if the universe actually diverges. Maybe somebody already has invented a time machine and our history is being constantly altered, but we don’t notice the kinks in our path through time.”
I know complaining about science journalism is a staple around ScienceBlogs, but really this is just astonishing malpractice. This would be an embarrassment in a Star Trek episode. For it to appear in a news story is beyond words.