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The Worst Physics Article Ever

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst physics news article I have ever seen:


Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Oded
    April 7, 2010

    What the hell!!
    When I saw the title of this post, I thought “sigh yet another rant” – but WOW!! What the hell kind of science reporting is that.. It sounded so insane I thought maybe you’ve just been duped and this is some kind of April’s Fools Joke, but it’s even too stupid for that, and the article doesn’t fit the date…

    Your description is wonderful. “This would be an embarrassment in a Star Trek episode”.

  2. #2 rob
    April 7, 2010

    well, it IS fox news…

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 7, 2010

    If you think this would be an embarrassment for a Star Trek episode you must have missed the Voyager episode where they get stuck in the event horizon of a black hole but then find a crack in the event horizon which they fly out of. Everything is black except the crack where they can see stars. No, I’m not making this up.

    And there’s TOS episode where the increase the sensors’ power by a factor of 1 to the 4th. No, I’m not making that up either.

    The level it takes to be embarrassing to a Star Trek episode is really quite low.

  4. #4 Cynic View
    April 7, 2010

    Wow, what an amazing way by fox to get their audience to fill out the gaps from lack of context or real information with their own internal beliefs.

    Therefore a duck!

  5. #5 Robert
    April 7, 2010

    This may be the most competent writer at Fox.

    The article is indeed something else, but the comments are even funnier.

  6. #6 Joel
    April 7, 2010

    Fred Alan Wolf? Isn’t that the guy from What The Bleep Do We Know?

  7. #7 Doug
    April 7, 2010

    I submitted the Fox News article as Bad Journalism at NewsTrust.net: http://newstrust.net/stories/1258701

  8. #8 andy.s
    April 7, 2010

    Then there was the ST:TNG episode where they went into a geosynchronous orbit over a planet’s south pole…

  9. #9 Chris Driscoll
    April 8, 2010

    Anyone surprised that this story comes from foxnews.com?

  10. #10 csrster
    April 8, 2010

    “And many-worlds doesn’t have anything to do with time travel anyway, that would be yet another category error. ”

    Well, David Deutsch has argued that many-worlds makes backwards time-travel _logically_ possible because it eliminates the grandfather paradox. You can travel backwards in time and kill your grandfather but only in another parallel reality – one in which you are never born.

  11. #11 Anonymous
    April 8, 2010

    about the difference of scale:

    the classical Copenhagen interpretation by Bohr literally requires a classical world at large scales. it has been superseded and all, but still, if you take that as a basis, there is new physics in this experiment.

  12. #12 Funkydebunker
    April 8, 2010

    In all deference to Ben Bova, Star Trek and science fiction fans, come on: comparing the science in Star Trek is like using the Bible as a history book. Science fiction writers break the rules all the time. Can anyone tell me how a “warp drive” works? Can we blame a sci-fi writer for getting a bit excited over science news? Exageration and flights of imagination are what they do. However, that does not excuse the science journalist for getting things wrong. Quantum mechanics is tough stuff for most non-science types. I have lately seen some highly intelligent people in the “soft” sciences go to some pretty wacky places based on their incomplete understanding of things like quantum entanglement. Has anyone heard of the “Global Consciousness Project”? A journalist who gets this nutty should have things explained to him first, so that he can explain it to me. Even I, with my tiny brain could see that building a time machine by wiggling a few electrons around is just plain silly, and has nothing to do with the experimental results. But that’s show biz!

  13. #13 Ian Kemmish
    April 8, 2010

    You forgot to mention that Einstein DID find it impossible to believe.

  14. #14 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 8, 2010

    I don’t know whether to be more offended as a scientist with several papers on arXiv about the nature of time, or as a professional Science Fiction author (who was recently paid a hefty $50.00 for a Time Travel story available free at Flash Fiction Online).

  15. #15 MPS
    April 8, 2010

    Someone sent me a link to a science article, which I decided was the most terrible science article I’ve ever read.

    Just now I remembered your headline from my Facebook feed the other day, and I thought: whatever article s/he’s talking about, I’ve gotta post this article, because I’m sure it’s worse.

    Turns out it was the same article :-).

  16. #16 Mark Mawson
    April 8, 2010

    Does anyone know that actual scholarly article that this fox news article was based on? I would love to use this for a school assignment on flaws in reporting scientific info but I need the actual article!! Please help. vdopower@gmail.com

  17. #17 Jeff Kooistra
    April 8, 2010

    The piece was written by John Brandon. Here’s the bio from his twitter page: “Reporter for many Web sites and magazines, including Macworld, CIO, Computerworld, TechRadar.com, Inc Magazine, Laptop, Shutterbug, and Relevant Magazine” Granted, the piece is awful, but he’s hardly a FoxNews reporter. He’s just a freelance writer, and you can find this kind of shit all over the place.

    @Mark Mawson: Here’s the story from nanotech now: http://www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=37303

    And from nature news: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100317/full/news.2010.130.html

    Judging from comments left at nature news, bad science articles about this particular experiment seem to be the rule.

  18. #18 Mike R
    April 8, 2010

    A man once said “if the earth is spinning why is it that when I jump up I land in the same spot”. We have a long way to go.

  19. #19 Anonymous
    April 10, 2010

    “A man once said “if the earth is spinning why is it that when I jump up I land in the same spot”. We have a long way to go.”

    Actually, that’s a good question. I’m not a science guy, but i was curious about the accuracy of the Fox article, so i looked into it and found this page. The answer is because of gravity, right? And yes i went to college.

  20. #20 Anonymous
    April 10, 2010

    You land at the same spot because of inertia.

  21. #21 Ian Tindale
    April 10, 2010

    But is it really the same spot?

  22. #22 Anonymous
    April 10, 2010

    That depends on whether or not you can step into the same river twice.

    On an unrelated note, those of you with an abundance of faith in humanity might enjoy the comments on the Fox News page itself. Equal parts “CHRISTIAN scientists have known about this for a while now,” “our tax dollars at work,” and “lol letz sned NOBAMA back in tiem.”

  23. #23 GaryNaham
    April 11, 2010

    How is this “observed effect” different from “Persistence of memory” if the human visual cortex is the observation tool in question?

  24. #24 Anonymous
    April 14, 2010

    A man once said “if the earth is spinning why is it that when I jump up I land in the same spot”.

    Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark duo said that.

  25. #25 Visitor
    July 16, 2010

    You people are idiots. If you think that this Fox article is any worse than the garbage that Kaku spouts, you are a bit too self-infatuated to see how deluded you are. He is one of the chief reasons why junk like this Fox article is considered “physics reportage” – because Kaku And Ko. have shown that physics need not have any basis in reality. When a creep like Susskind can try to muster support for the multiverse not via observational evidence (which he admits will never exist) but by appealing to its utility in supporting atheism, or when Clifford Johnson proves that a woman’s breasts are capable of crushing beer cans, am I *really* going to be upset at Fox News for this kind of stuff?

    No, this is what you get when you divorce physics, or any science, from empirical observation. Don’t blame Fox News; blame the people who have turned physics into a laughing stock: Kaku, or any other physicist (or scientist in general) who thinks that the main purpose of physics is for getting some face-time on television.

    Science is as morally corrupt and venal as every other facet of the modern world.

  26. #26 Osun Thyruss
    September 27, 2011

    When I first read the Fox”news” article, coffee spewed out my nose in both waves and particles. I too was wondering how the writer managed to associate time travel and parallel worlds to Cleland’s experiment. Thank you for taking the time to do the mind-numbing task of wiping John Brandon’s assuming ass. His “news article” was yet another example of how FoxNews is either suffering from oxygen deprivation, or guilty of purposely adding cheese to real science as a means of disinformation.

  27. #27 Richard
    October 6, 2011

    I am constantly enamored by the parallel universe theory. That combined with time travel makes for an interested read.