One world is not enough

On inaccessible universes and infinite planets.

Don’t worry, there are other worlds. There have to be. If there aren’t, then we haven’t yet made sense of this one. On 19 June, the celebrated science-fiction writers Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter will publish a new book, The Long Earth. It is based on an outlandish premise: that an infinite number of variations on our planet are hidden in inaccessible universes. If it were just science fiction, we could either welcome or dismiss it, according to our taste, as yet another example of the limitless human imagination. The trouble is, the whole thing is based in evidence. Worse, this evidence is now the bedrock of modern science.

First of all, let’s go to the roots of our physical reality. If you fire an atom at a screen containing two openings, the atom will go through both. It’s not just atoms; a molecule composed of 60 or so atoms does the same thing. Anything that follows the laws of quantum theory will do it. The only time this doesn’t happen is when someone is watching.

That we don’t get into a car using all four doors at once tells us that the weirdness disappears once you have a lot more than a few dozen atoms clumped together. No one knows why, and it doesn’t change the fact that the strange behaviour of the building blocks of matter is capable of breaking your mind.

No one knew this better than Hugh Everett, who started his career trying to solve this puzzle and ended up a chain-smoking alcoholic. Everett’s idea is now known as the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to this, a new universe is created every time a subatomic particle is faced with a choice of things to be or do. The ultimate logical consequence is that the universe is composed of myriad sub-universes, each subtly different from the one that spawned it. In this cornucopia of worlds, many will be utterly different from ours. There is, according to the theory, a world where Elvis Presley is the king, not of rock’n’roll, but of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

No one accepted the idea, and Everett responded to the pain of rejection by slowly self-destructing. Today, however, physicists take these quantum worlds seriously. And they are not the only strange fruit of modern physics.

Our best theory of how the universe began requires that it went through a ridiculous period of super-fast expansion, increasing in size by a factor of 1,000 billion billion billion in a fraction of a millisecond. If that is the case, the same “inflation” mechanism will cause other universes to blow up from tiny instabilities in the fabric of our universe. They pinch off and float away beyond our reach. And if you believe Everett’s theory, the activity of quantum particles in each of those worlds will spawn ever more worlds nested within them.

Forget reality

It might seem as if the existence of these universes would be unverifiable, but that is a supposition which ignores the ingenuity of scientists. Some have already worked out what imprint a collision with one of the inflated universes would make on the microwave background radiation that fills our universe. Having figured that out, they are now combing the universe for signs that we have touched another world.

It will be harder to verify the existence of the many quantum worlds. Some believe a better explanation for quantum phenomena is that there is no objective reality at all; nothing exists until an experimental observation brings it into being. But clearly, whatever Pratchett and Baxter have come up with, it won’t be as strange or unbelievable as the truth. 

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is out now in paperback (Profile Books, £8.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.