Humans May Have Shortened the Life of the Universe

Never mind global warming. Human observation of the universe may have accelerated its demise.

An article in New Scientist discusses the theory developed by cosmologists Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University and James Dent of Vanderbilt University. They believe that the observation of dark energy made in 1998 may have caused the universe to shift, in quantum fashion, to a more unstable state it occupied earlier in its history. “Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe,” argues Krauss.

A summary and discussion of the article from the Telegraph:

Forget about the threat that mankind poses to the Earth: our activities may be shortening the life of the universe too.

The startling claim is made by a pair of American cosmologists investigating the consequences for the cosmos of quantum theory, the most successful theory we have. Over the past few years, cosmologists have taken this powerful theory of what happens at the level of subatomic particles and tried to extend it to understand the universe, since it began in the subatomic realm during the Big Bang.

Cosmologists claim by observing dark energy the universe has been nudged closer to its death

But there is an odd feature of the theory that philosophers and scientists still argue about. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we change things simply by looking at them and theorists have puzzled over the implications for years.

They often illustrate their concerns about what the theory means with mind-boggling experiments, notably Schrodinger’s cat in which, thanks to a fancy experimental set up, the moggy is both alive and dead until someone decides to look, when it either carries on living, or dies. That is, by one interpretation (by another, the universe splits into two, one with a live cat and one with a dead one.)

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have accidentally nudged the universe closer to its death by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

The damaging allegations are made by Profs Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and James Dent of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, who suggest that by making this observation in 1998 we may have caused the cosmos to revert to an earlier state when it was more likely to end. “Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe,” Prof Krauss tells New Scientist.

The team came to this depressing conclusion by calculating how the energy state of our universe – a kind of summation of all its particles and all their energies – has evolved since the big bang of creation 13.7 billion years ago.

Some mathematical theories suggest that, in the very beginning, there was a void that possessed energy but was devoid of substance. Then the void changed, converting energy into the hot matter of the big bang. But the team suggests that the void did not convert as much energy to matter as it could, retaining some, in the form of what we now call dark energy, which now accelerates the expansion of the cosmos.

Like the decay of a radioactive atom, such shifts in energy state happen at random and it is possible that this could trigger a new big bang. The good news is that theory suggests that the universe should remain in its current state.

But the bad is that quantum theory says that whenever we observe or measure something, we could stop it decaying due what is what is called the “quantum Zeno effect,” which suggests that if an “observer” makes repeated, quick observations of a microscopic object undergoing change, the object can stop changing – just as a watched kettle never boils.

In this case however, it turns out that quantum mechanics implies that if an unstable system has survived for far longer than the average such system should, then the probability that it will continue to survive decreases more slowly than it otherwise would. By resetting the clock, the survival probability would now once again fall exponentially.

“The intriguing question is this,” Prof Krauss told the Telegraph. “If we attempt to apply quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole, and if our present state is unstable, then what sets the clock that governs decay? Once we determine our current state by observations, have we reset the clock? If so, as incredible as it may seem, our detection of dark energy may have reduced the life expectancy of our universe.”

Prof Krauss says that the measurement of the light from supernovae in 1998, which provided evidence of dark energy, may have reset the decay of the void to zero – back to a point when the likelihood of its surviving was falling rapidly. “In short, we may have snatched away the possibility of long-term survival for our universe and made it more likely it will decay,” says Prof Krauss. Not all agree, since his interpretation hinges on one of the issues at the heart of quantum theory – do you need people to do the observing?

This is not the only damage to the heavens that astronomers may have caused. Our cosmos is now significantly lighter than scientists had thought after an analysis of the amount of light given out by galaxies concluded that some shone from lightweight electrons, not heavyweight atoms. In all, the new analysis suggests that the universe has lost about one fifth of its overall mass.

The discovery was made while trying to analyze clusters of galaxies – the largest cosmological structures in the universe – and is not the result of a cosmological diet but a major rethink of how to interpret x-rays produced by the clusters.

Five years ago, a team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville lead by Prof Richard Lieu reported finding large amounts of extra “soft” (relatively low-energy) x-rays coming from the vast space in the middle of galaxy clusters. Although the atoms that emitted them were thought to be spread thinly through space (less than one atom per cubit metre), they would have filled billions of billions of cubic light years.

Their cumulative mass was thought to account for as much as ten percent of the mass and gravity needed to hold together galaxies, galaxy clusters and perhaps the universe itself.

But now the team has taken a closer look at data gathered by several satellite instruments, including the Chandra X-ray Observatory and have had a major rethink about these soft X-rays, the bottom line being that this chunk of the universe should now be discounted.

The reason is that the soft x-rays thought to come from intergalactic clouds of atomic gas probably emanated from lightweight electrons instead.

If the source of so much x-ray energy is tiny electrons instead of hefty atoms, it is says the team as if billions of lights thought to come from billions of aircraft carriers were found instead to come from billions of extremely bright fireflies.

“This means the mass of these x-ray emitting clouds is much less than we initially thought it was,” said Dr. Max Bonamente. Instead, they are produced by electrons travelling almost the speed of light (and therefore “relativistic”).

The discovery may also change what we think is the mix of elements in the universe because these soft x rays mask the tell tale x ray emissions of iron and other metals. “This is also telling us there is fractionally more iron and other metals than we previously thought,” said Bonamente. “Less mass but more metals.”

Results of this research by Bonamente, Jukka Nevalainen of Finland’s Helsinki Observatory and Prof Lieu have been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The calculated mass of the universe ranges anywhere from 10 to the power of 53 kg to 10 to the power of 60 kg and is complicated by the fact that there is invisible matter we cannot see, called dark matter.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Anonymous

    The very act of observation ipso facto altering the physical forces of nature? This is a familiar concept to students of economics and exchange rates. The universe, like the dollar, is having a Wile E. Coyote moment.

  2. Jojo

    [ROFLOL]. I find it very difficult to believe in something that can’t be seen (dark energy and dark matter), let alone believe that the act of looking at something has the power to change it, despite what some experiments have shown about quantum effects.

    The size of the universe seems to be beyond human comprehension. We can only see 13-15 billion years back. What, if anything, is beyond that?

    And is our universe just one of many in an infinite meta space? And what about string theory and the possibility of multiple dimensions? Is time a true dimension and can it be traversed?

    We know so very little of the universe. I believe that much of what we think we know now will be proven to be incorrect when looked back on from some far future time (assuming that we don’t bring this universe to an early demise by examining it)….

  3. Anonymous

    I am amazed that some scientist actually seems to believe this.
    We did not observe the supernova in a way that would reset its state. We didn’t do anything to the supernova, we measured the photons it sent out.
    If we see a rock that is because light from the sun has hit the rock and was reflected into our eyes. However the relevant observation of the rock for quantum mechanics is that photons have interacted with the rock, not which objects the photons interact with next.
    I can’t believe the professor is suggesting that our observing these photons with detectors is of any importance. After all, they would have hit the earth either way.

  4. Anonymous

    This guy is an embarrassment to the field of physics. What a ridiculous claim? He believes the Universe is changes because people collected photons and concluded there was dark energy? What if they concluded that scientists like Saul Perlmutter simply had it wrong? Would it not collapse?

  5. Friendly Ghost

    Well, I dunno if we have shortened the lifespan of the universe by observing it, and I really wonder if that is what we should be pondering, especially in the context of the fact that we have most certainly reduced the lifespan of the earth as an inhabitable planet.

    For millions of years, nature was taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — taking carbon out of circulation — and stashing it away as the large trunks of trees, masses of forests, and as enormous coal and crude-oil reserves under the earth.

    But since the discovery of the steam engine and the industrial revolution, mankind has been taking these carbon and hydrocarbon reserves and burning them. Every passing year, we thus undo the work of a few thousand years of nature. Humankind is now a rampant force of nature.

    The carbon footprint of each individual human-being on earth is doubling every 20 years or so.

    As our population grows — rising as much in 10 years as it did in the entire millennium between 1 AD and 1000 AD — the collective carbon footprint of humankind doubles every 10 years or so. In other words, the ‘weight’ or ‘impact’ of humankind on earth is doubling every decade.

    I think we should wonder whether earth is viable any longer as a liveable planet for a majority of life forms that currently exist.

    We should wonder about how our planet will look a few decades from now. Whether the universe will continue to exist after billions of years is merely of academic interest!

    Krishnaraj Rao (a.k.a. Friendly Ghost)

  6. SRegan

    What insane poppycock. This was in the New Scientist? Frankly, I’m not surprised. A few months ago I pitched them an article examining the growing popularity of “perpetual motion” claims and the implications of this for the state of science education in the UK and USA. I was told that this critical look at “free energy” scams was “not quite” what the New Scientist was looking for. Clearly they prefer pseudo-scientific garbage like the above rather than hard exposés of claptrap.

    Actually, the more I read it, the more I’m convinced “Prof Klauss” is having the New Scientist on. The “quantum Zeno effect” has nothing to do with “observation” by sentient beings. Read the Wikipedia entry – “observation” with respect to the Zeno effect refers purely to the absorption of a particle. Light is going to interact with dark energy whether humans are around or not! “Just like a watched kettle never boils”? No! On the contrary, on a microscopic level a “watched pot” boils faster, because you’re shining light on it to see it, and light carries energy. The “quantum Zeno effect” is not some magical “spooky action” (don’t get me started) but a fact of classical physics: firing a photon at a waveform makes it last longer, because you’re pumping energy into it!

    And surely anyone with the title of Professor would know that Schrodinger’s Cat is not a “real” quantum state but rather an observerspace phenomenon designed to illustrate the simple fact that the act of observing collapses theories to a single objective fact (the universe splits in two? what!? no sensible physicist has ever claimed that).

    The foundation of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Theorem, basically tells us that we can’t observe things unless we hit them with something else. The smallest thing we can hit them with is light, and on microscopic scales even light alters the conditions you are observing (changing their spin, knocking them around, etc.).

    If there is any sound science behind this claim, it would be that by using innovative methods to observe vacuum energy (pumping it with more energy than would happen naturally at any given time) we have somehow managed to alter a physical constant, which is going to have a disastrous effect on the universe at large. Of course, there are strict limitations on what can happen. Most notably, no information can be transferred faster than the speed of light. If this constant-alteration is assumed to occur instantly, universe-wide, someone on the other side of the universe could receive a Morse Code message produced by lowering the survival probability in sharp, concerted bursts. To avoid unambiguously falling into the realm of “crank physics”, Krauus must posit that we have created a sphere of space-time where slightly different laws apply, and that this region is expanding at the speed of light. Guess what – that gives the universe at least 14 billion years (its present size), no matter what we do!

    The verdict: the New Scientist should be ashamed of itself for publishing such inane tripe.

  7. Anonymous

    For those of you that really want to know how the universe got started see.
    Its so simple its all explained with cartoons.Lot of the details that the theory leads to are not yet included and the site is still under construction but its a valid theory.Big bang theory as is should really be a called a hypothesis rather than a theory because it dose not prepossess suitable experiments and is not subject to falsification.This alternative theory is.

Comments are closed.