Physicists Calculate Alternative Universes

According to a story in the Stanford Daily, the recent arXiv preprint mentioned here and discussed many other places on the web has given us two new scientific celebrities:

Two of Stanford’s physicists, Professor Andrei Linde and postdoctoral researcher Vitaly Vanchurin, have garnered recent celebrity-status in the scientific community for their recent discovery of the maximum number of alternate universes.

Instead of consulting experts in this field and getting quotes about how significant this pseudo-science is, the writer asks Stanford students, who do a much better job than the experts:

“I personally find the concept intriguing, but I think we should be wary of scientists who can use it as a way to write things off and stop looking for deeper answers to physical phenomena,” Lauren Janas ’12 said…

Some Stanford students are not entirely convinced of Vanchurin and Linde‘s complicated methods.

“I’m quite skeptical,” Frank Liu ’13 said. “I think it’s hard to tell how many universes there exactly are.”

The story ends with the mystifying news that the authors hope “that in the future, they can work with modular observations to confirm their findings.”

For more media coverage of the multiverse, see here.

Update: Oops, last link was broken, now fixed.

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26 Responses to Physicists Calculate Alternative Universes

  1. The Vlad says:

    Well, I’m no physicist, but as a computational neuroscientist, I find the following part of the article offensive:

    Linde stressed that their estimate may not be comprehensible to the human brain.

    “Our brain is the final computer to which all the data about the universe is going,” she said.

    Linde estimates that the brain’s limit to how many alternate states can be processes is 10^10^16, far less than10^10^10^7.

    “If we concentrate on the information our brain can acquire, we’re going from real physics to a little bit more philosophical issues,” Vanchurin said.

  2. Yatima says:

    No need to be offended I would say. It just doesn’t make any sense. The article’s quotes look like they were cut & pasted by someone with ADHD.

    Still, the incongruous citation of “the number of brain states” makes me suspect that there are Boltzmann Brains involved. Somehow.

  3. Chris W. says:

    Meanwhile, Steve Hsu throws a bone to anthropism.

  4. Yatima says:

    >>Meanwhile, Steve Hsu throws a bone to anthropism.

    Nice. A whole library of rather well-grounded reasoning about why life should not be improbably at all (starting with Dysons’ Origin of Life and ending with modern analysis of genetic algorithms) is thrown out of the window in a handwaving blogpost which also cites Gödel who apparently was caught momentarily under the delusion that life evolves in an environment in thermodynamic equilibrium.

    I want to not believe.

  5. Bob Levine says:

    “A whole library of rather well-grounded reasoning about why life should not be improbably at all (starting with Dysons’ Origin of Life and ending with modern analysis of genetic algorithms) is thrown out of the window in a handwaving blogpost which also cites Gödel who apparently was caught momentarily under the delusion that life evolves in an environment in thermodynamic equilibrium.”

    This is yet another instance of the dark side of The (Internet) Force. Hsu’s piece is at best a series of shallow connections fired off in thinking-aloud mode, based in part on the assumption that Gödel’s authority based on his consistency/completeness theorems for formal systems gave him some kind of authority in evolutionary biophysics. The Gödel metric notwithstanding, his unsupported assertions on the physics of life strikes me as being kind of on the same level as Hsu’s own stream-of-consciousness text. Someone will turn ‘cite’ Hsu in support of some other bit of dubious semi-science, which will be embedded in yet more vague nonsense, and so it goes.

    This kind of public venting of what is in most cases half-baked speculation that couldn’t get to first base against even casual peer review makes the use of the Internet very dodgy for people who have no particular expertise or experience in whatever branch of science is involved. I’ll bet Hsu is a lot more careful when preparing his work for that kind of review at, say, Physical Review Letters, but on his blog he can let his hair down and indulge in what is, in polite terms, cocktail party chit-chat. A lot of the public, trawling for information on the internet, probably can’t tell the difference. Watch for Hsu’s comments to be mirrored endlessly in the creationist blogsphere till hell freezed over by people who are under the impression that his and Gödel’s comments constitute actual support for ID.

  6. Tim vB says:

    Did you cry or did you laugh when you read the article? Couldn’t make up my mind yet, but I think the quote
    “I think it’s hard to tell how many universes there exactly are.”
    would be a good starting point for any Monty Python scene.
    How about: Mr. X gained celebrity status by calculating the number of whoffels in the multiverse, “it is probably a prime number” he stated, and conjectured that gaining more insight would probably require to work harder.
    Anyone interested to write an article about that?

  7. Dantas’ Axiom: the number of alternate universes is exactly zero.

    In strange times, some people may find what is self-evident as shocking. Now that must turn me into a celebrity.

  8. Stephen says:

    It is sad how much Linde has gone away from real physics into wild speculation.

    I also point out some sentences:

    “Linde describes this as the most accepted theory regarding the creation of the universe.”

    — inflation is not “creating” any universe, it is just a period of very fast expansion

    “Even though the universe is generally infinite in the mathematical sense”

    — who told them this? God? or some observation?

    “If we concentrate on the information our brain can acquire, we’re going from real physics to a little bit more philosophical issues,”

    — from real physics?!?

  9. Bob Levine says:

    ‘“If we concentrate on the information our brain can acquire, we’re going from real physics to a little bit more philosophical issues,”

    – from real physics?!?’

    I know… it’s scary, really. When people start talking this way, showing how much they’re presupposing, without question or even pro forma caution, whatever pistache of strange assumptions and a priori is current in their hermetically insulated research communities, you start wondering how long science will be able to maintain the credibility it took so many centuries to earn. What the social theory hacks were unable to do, real scientist may well wind up doing to themselves.

    Sabine Hossenfelder, in her Blog, has made the case that it’s not necessarily the best thing for science to be conducted totally out in the open, so that every single step from initial hunch to decisively confirmed (or not!) prediction is available for public consumption/comment/kibbitzing and so on. I think Linde and Vanchurin would have done *much* better taking her cautions to heart before going public with this stuff…

  10. Arrow says:

    It’s amazing that such speculative nonsense actually passes of as physics.

    Their absurd statements about human brain are especially appalling, the capacity of human brain would have nothing to do with the “number of universes” even if the latter made any sense. Why do they compare the “states which a brain can handle” with the supposed number of universes? What are they trying to say that each “state of the brain” can somehow represent or comprehend one universe?! This is absurd.

    Multiverse idea is dealt with by Ockham Razor.

  11. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    A 12 and a 13 year old showing better critical thinking skills than the majority of the theoretical physics community? I think it’s time for everyone to take a step back.

  12. neo says:

    “most accepted theory”, “popular theory”

    It is settled then. We can decide on how many universes there are simply by voting on it.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    OMF,

    Those indicate the graduation date of the Stanford students interviewed (2012, 2013), not their ages.

  14. Aristarchus says:

    The so-called reporting I have seen from college students in their local papers who one day hope to become professional journalists concerns me deeply.

    So many of them are communications majors who know little about science and it shows. Apparently doing some homework when writing up a story is passé these days.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Aristarchus,

    The young journalist here did a better job than many professionals in terms of coming up with people who could give a sensible response to this particular bit of multiverse mania. The problem with these stories is not the journalist, but the activities of members of the scientific establishment that the journalists are reporting on.

  16. Bob Levine says:

    “The problem with these stories is not the journalist, but the activities of members of the scientific establishment that the journalists are reporting on.”

    So the question is, *why* are these established scientists doing this sort of thing?

    A number of Peter’s recent blogposts bear all seem to bear on this question. We have prominent physicists writing about backwards causality mediated by Higgs bosons (talk about a ‘God particle’!), exact calculations of bounds on the number of alternative universes… someone has too much time on their hands, is what it looks like. And we all know the reason for that: no new data, no real anomalies to explain, nothing to compute on and get either a match with theory or a discrepancy. The Devil makes work for idle hands… or, another way to look at is is the way people in acquatic isolation tanks, in full sensory deprivation experiments, start to hallucinate. The senses need input and stimulation; if they can’t get the real thing, some people think, they’ll generate their own spurious signals just to have something to process.

    Which is why people like Weinberg have switched fields, in effect, to cosmology. There’s actual data there, there are observed effect that need explaining and bear on theoretical models. As long as particle physics lacks something comparable, they’ll hallucinate landscapes and backwards causality and all sorts of wondrous things. Please, *please*, let the LHC finally come on stream, and stay there…

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Bob,

    Problem is, it’s the cosmologists as much if not more than the particle physicists who are hallucinating (Linde, Vanchurin are cosmologists, and the only person who seems to take Nielsen-Ninomiya seriously is a cosmologist…).

  18. changcho says:

    So this is what passes for Physics at Stanford nowadays. Ah, and also the Landscape of course…

  19. Bob Levine says:

    “Problem is, it’s the cosmologists as much if not more than the particle physicists who are hallucinating (Linde, Vanchurin are cosmologists, and the only person who seems to take Nielsen-Ninomiya seriously is a cosmologist…)”

    Yes… maybe the whole culture of the field has been contaminated by the data-shortage-induced crisis in high energy physics? For several generations, that’s the branch of the field that been the flagship of the physics enterprise; if hep starts chasing white rabbits, maybe other theoretically inclined branches are tempted to join in the pursuit?

  20. Tim vB says:

    @Bob Levine
    “… no new data, no real anomalies to explain, nothing to compute on and get either a match with theory or a discrepancy.”
    There are many open problems in hep and cosmology you can work on without engaging in highly speculative ideas with no hope to ever make contact to experiment. That is why I cannot understand why anyone would sit down and try to calculate something like the number of universes in the multiverse. If asked why they did this Linde and Vanchurin will probably not answer “we were bored” or something similar – would be nice if someone at Stanford asked them, I would be interested in the result 🙂
    With regard to the Family guy episode: This is hardly new, the whole series Sliders was built on this concept and there are even Star Treck episodes (original series as well as Next Generation) about the existence of multiple universes. Try to calculate what string theory says about the warp drive or quantum torpedoes, that would be slightly more original. (“String theory predicts the warp drive? Bah, LQG predicts the trans worp drive, bruhaha!”).

  21. Tim vB says:

    Hello Peter,
    Off topic:
    there is an interview with Michael Green here:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/oct/24/michael-green-new-lucasian-professor
    (How do I post a link? Do I just enter the href HTML-Node?).
    It is completly unremarkable, at least to me, with the notable exception that Green tells us his opinion about the critics of string theory:
    cit. begin:
    “Woit [Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law] is a blogger – he runs an anti-strings blog, he’s an ex-physicist, a PhD I think. He’s at Columbia – a systems manager or something [he also teaches mathematics]. So he’s not a professional physicist. He has strong views about string theory, which he’s entitled to, and he blogs them. And good for him.
    “The other one [Smolin] is a physicist who has a view of physics other than string theory and wants to promote that. And the media made a big song and dance about this, which seemed to me to be completely off-scale with what we experience anywhere in any university. The subject’s thriving.”
    cit. end
    What good does it do Green (or Susskind or anyone else) to tell people that Peter is a “computer programmer” or “systems manager”?
    You probably need to pass some specific initiation ceremony to be entitled to have an opinion about string theory, a Ph.D. in particle physics is not enough.

  22. teaser says:

    Does anybody know how many epicycles were needed to make the Earth-centered solar system match observation? I guess it would make sense that to account for all of the alternate universes, one would need a much bigger number of epicycles than what we used for the solar system.

  23. Thomas Larsson says:

    Mainstream medieval science was up to 13 epicycles when Kepler tried ellipses. However, epicycle theory, with any number of cycles, only works if planets move in closed orbits, which is only approximately true.

  24. Bob Levine says:

    “There are many open problems in hep and cosmology you can work on without engaging in highly speculative ideas with no hope to ever make contact to experiment.”

    Tim—that’s true without any question. But my guess is, it’s the TOE which has been promoted as the Holy Grail of physics, and the burning goal of a generation of physicists who have, from what I can tell, believed that such a theory was just a little bit out of their grasp. A genuine TOE, a theory that worked, from which all of the observed forces of nature would in effect fall out as theorems, would constitute the single most important result ever in science—I can’t really see any argument on that point—and, conversely, success in any ‘lesser’ project—what used to be called normal science—just can’t begin to have the glamour of grand unification, the ‘final theory’, however persuasive such results might be in terms of goodness of fit with experiment.

    That kind of thinking is bound to have a distorting effect on the climate of opinion in any collective activity. And the result is that for a lot of physicists, switching research activities to something perceived as being less absolutely fundamental would be a come-down of sorts, an admission of failure…

  25. Aristarchus says:

    Hawking says there were an infinite number of quantum beginnings:

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2009/10/were-there-an-infinite-number-of-quantum-beginnings-stephen-hawking-says-yes.html

    And who is going to argue with him?

  26. Nigel Cook says:

    “Mainstream medieval science was up to 13 epicycles when Kepler tried ellipses. However, epicycle theory, with any number of cycles, only works if planets move in closed orbits, which is only approximately true.”

    Arthur Koestler’s 1959 “The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe” actually counted the epicycles up and found 40 in Ptolemy’s Earth-centred-system in his “Almagest” of 150 A.D., versus 80 in Copernicus’s solar system of 1500 A.D. (which used circular orbits with epicycles instead of ellipses like Kepler). This was contrary to the prevailing history of science, which insisted that Copernicus was accepted on the basis of Occam’s Razon due to having the fewer epicycles than Ptolemy. Actually sometimes more complex theories are closer to nature and there were different reasons why Copernicus was preferred. (Viz: Mercury and Venus are always observed from Earth to be on a bearing within 90 degrees of the position of the sun, a fact which is explained very simply in the solar system model by Mercury and Venus having orbits closer in to the sun than the Earth’s orbit. Additionally, the apparent size of the Moon seen from Earth in Ptolemy’s model should vary by a factor of two monthly due to its epicycles, when in fact it doesn’t appear to vary in size. Copernicus’s more complex model was preferred because it didn’t modelled nature right, not because it was the simplest.)

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