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Sep 2nd 2020

Despite the Hype, There’s No Proof of a Parallel Universe

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If alternate universes actually exist, perhaps the writers and editors in those parallel worlds take great pains to avoid confusion in their articles about scientific discoveries.

Confusion is what happened in our world when several news outlets reported a startling finding from NASA-funded cosmic experiments in Antarctica. A parallel universe had been found, those stories reported, and it looked as if time was running backward there.

It’s unclear if in this other reality backward meant that we (presuming it was, in fact, another version of us) started life in old age and got younger, just as Brad Pitt did in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” But any further discussion about time moving in the other direction, or about the alternate universe itself, proved to be anti-climactic because the stories about this discovery were a bit sensationalized. There is no other universe. For now, at least, we’re relegated to living in our known reality here on good ol’ Earth.

Stymied by a Paywall

Accusing the news outlets of negligence would be too harsh of a judgement. Their collective error appears to be nothing more than a rush to post stories with clickbait headlines.

NASA scientists detect parallel universe ‘next to ours’ where time runs backward,” declared a headline in a British tabloid. These stories went on to recount how the scientists in Antarctica had detected another universe where the laws of physics ran counter to ours. They got this idea from an April 2020 New Scientist article.

That article reported a scientific finding in Antarctica and indeed mentioned an alternate universe, but it wasn’t technically claiming that the scientists had found one. The article instead teased — much as a child stretches the truth just a bit but doesn’t lie — the possibility of a separate universe.

“We may have spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time,” the New Scientist headline read. And the subhead advanced the possibility: “Strange particles observed by an experiment in Antarctica could be evidence of an alternative reality where everything is upside down.”

The New Scientist article is behind a paywall, so journalists from other outlets seemingly read just enough to believe NASA was onto something real. It didn’t help that the last sentence of the story, before the paywall starts, offered one more tease: “It is perhaps the most mind-melting idea ever to have emerged from the Antarctic ice ­­– but it might just be true…”

If only those behind the follow-up stories had full access to New Scientist stories. As University of Hawai’i at Mānoa experimental particle physicist Peter Gorham, who is the lead investigator on the Antarctica project, told ScienceAlert, “It seems that for this tabloid science story, some speculative theoretical physics which might have had distant roots in plausibility was amplified for sensational reasons.”

Tracking Mysterious Neutrinos

What really happened in Antarctica? Well, a team of researchers whose work is partially funded by NASA are “listening” to the cosmos and finding high-energy particles known as neutrinos.

As CNET aptly describes, neutrinos pass through most solid objects without detection, as many as 100 trillion of them passing through the human body every second. They don’t interact with matter, but if they happen to collide with an atom, neutrinos create a shower of detectable particles, enabling scientists to trace their origin in the universe.

To listen to the cosmos and track neutrinos in Antarctica, the scientists are using an array of radio antennas attached to a helium balloon that flies 37,000 meters above the ice. Throughout its years-long project, the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) has detected neutrinos from a strange angle — strange as in they arrive through the Earth’s interior, rather than coming from space.

“The unusual ANITA events have been known and discussed since 2016,” Ron Ekers, an honorary fellow at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, told CNET. “After four years there has been no satisfactory explanation of the anomalous events seen by ANITA so this is very frustrating.”

With no clear explanation for the origin of the neutrinos, confusion and conflation led to the recent round of stories pointing to a parallel universe. CNN recently reported that the guilty media outlets were conflating the theories of Gorham and his team with the ideas of physicists outside of the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna project. Those on the outside have speculated about alternate universes. Of course, New Scientist is also on the hook for its misleading presentation outside of the paywall.

What’s Going On There?

It would seem that more than a paywall separates us from alternate universes, that is, if they even exist. As Forbes noted, the idea of parallel universes was first conceived through the study of quantum physics, but they are hard to prove. Still, it’s fun to think about the possibilities. The “many-worlds” theory of quantum mechanics holds that all the outcomes that can possibly occur actually happen, but only one outcome unfolds in each universe. That means if more than one universe exists, William Shakespeare left us a treasure of written words, but in another universe he was a baker of bread.

Another way of examining the possibilities of alternate universes is through the infinite multiverse theory, which arises from inflation that happened after the Big Bang. For cosmologists, the multiverse theory describes the sum total of all possible universes, while for us common folk it has come to mean any universe that we might encounter other than our own.

A Tufts University physics professor stretched out the multiverse theory by offering that a replica of a person is on a replica of Earth somewhere else. A Stanford Magazine article from 2007 had even more fun by positing that we are the same in another universe but speaking different languages, while in another universe we have different careers because we followed different passions. If that’s true, maybe journalists in another realm were a bit more careful in reporting about neutrinos in Antarctica.

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