After NASA Detected Particles That Defy Physics, This Wild Theory About A Parallel Universe Emerged

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Scientists have launched the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) into the skies above Antarctica. This sophisticated equipment, designed to detect tiny cosmic particles called neutrinos, soars into the stratosphere suspended beneath a balloon. Sure enough, ANITA detects neutrinos. But they’re coming from the wrong direction. Instead of heading inwards from space, the particles are ascending from the Antarctic’s icy surface. And this discovery sets off a storm of controversy.

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This anomalous neutrino activity, spotted twice since 2016 as ANITA floated some 20 miles above Antarctica, is a real conundrum for particle physics. There’s a framework physicists use called the Standard Model that’s intended to describe all the particles in our universe and the properties they exhibit. These neutrinos discovered by ANITA don’t appear to fit into this model, however. So, have the scientists stumbled across a new and astonishing truth about the universe?

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Certain sections of the press picked up on the story and according to their reports, these mysterious neutrinos offered evidence of something utterly astonishing. What the scientists might have detected, it was claimed, was evidence of parallel universes. What’s more, in a parallel universe, time might even be reversed. The Big Bang, according to this account created more than one universe: the one we live in and another in which the flow of time is turned around.

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Before we go into detail about the ANITA mission and its intriguing findings, let’s first explore this idea of parallel universes, or multiverses, a little more. You may think that the concept of the parallel universe, or even universes, is simply the stuff of science fiction. However, it’s an idea that serious scientists have considered.

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A man named Hugh Everett III is credited with coming up with the concept of parallel universes or multiverses. In a 2008 article Scientific American described Everett as “a brilliant mathematician [and] an iconoclastic quantum theorist.” The magazine also referred to him as “a chain smoking alcoholic who died prematurely.” He passed away while in his early-50s in 1982.

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Indeed, by his own account, alcohol seems to have been involved in Everett’s formation of his multiverse theory. In 1954 he was sharing a convivial glass or two of sherry with a couple of colleagues. Conversation turned to some possible ramifications arising from current knowledge of quantum physics.

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Specifically, according to Scientific American, the three were speculating on the topic of “ridiculous things about the implications of quantum mechanics.” And it was in the course of the private drinks party that Everett first came up with the idea of parallel universes. Rather than leaving the concept as a brief flight of alcohol-induced fancy, though, Everett went on to expand the idea into a paper.

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And the theory that Everett came up with was radical to say the least. The youthful mathematician set out to redefine what we understand about physical reality. He did this by revising the math that underpins quantum mechanics. Everett’s ambition was to solve one of the thorniest puzzles of physics: an enigma known as the measurement problem.

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The measurement problem refers to the anomalies that researchers come up against when measuring the properties of subatomic particles. It turns out that scientists have been unable to measure the way particles exist and move. And this is a fundamental question, since these quantum particles make up the matter that forms reality in our world and across the universe.

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The detailed complexities of quantum mechanics are beyond the scope of this piece. But in simple terms, the theory that Everett came up with to explain the measurement problem logically led to the concept of parallel universes. Everett’s quantum mechanics work wasn’t without its critics, however. According to Scientific American, the eminent scientist Alexander W. Stern dismissed Everett’s work as “theology.”

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Having put the cat among the pigeons, however, Everett’s work in quantum mechanics then hit a brick wall. In fact, he was at risk of being drafted into the military in the 1950s. To avoid that, he took a post at the Pentagon. But his new employment meant that he had other more practical scientific problems to confront – such as the number of deaths that a nuclear explosion might cause.

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Everett’s study outlining his theories on quantum physics and the measurement problem appeared in the scientific journal Reviews of Modern Physics in 1957. But his “‘Relative State’ Formulation of Quantum Mechanics” made little impact on the world at the time. Nonetheless, the ideas of multiverses and parallel universes had legs in the public imagination, in science fiction and even among serious scientists.

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In a 2018 article, the Space.com website identified five different ideas of what multiverses might be. The starting point for all of the different scenarios is a simple issue: is our universe the only one that exists? However, the technology available to us today can’t offer a ready answer to that question. We have no way of “seeing” beyond our own universe.

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Since we can’t know, at least for now and perhaps forever, if ours is the only universe, we’re able theorize to our hearts’ content. So let’s take a look at the five best known theories as catalogued by Space.com. The first encompasses the mind-boggling idea that there may be an infinite number of universes.

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The infinite number of universes theory posits that space and time exist on a flat plane that stretches on forever. That means there’s ample space for an infinite number of universes. Moreover, if there are infinite universes, there must be some exactly the same as one another, since there is a limit to the number of manners in which matter can be combined. And there you have your parallel universes.

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Then there are bubble universes. Alexander Vilenkin, a scientist at Tufts University, has pointed out that our universe is still expanding after the Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago that kick-started the reality we live in. But selected parts of space-time are not expanding while others are, according to Vilenkin. So it may be that these multiple universes, all in their own “bubbles,” are governed by entirely different sets of physical rules.

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Next up, if your brain can handle more, are daughter universes. This theory actually adheres to quantum mechanics science in the way it describes the properties of subatomic particles. The daughter universes concept posits that every possible result of an action exists somewhere. And that somewhere is a parallel universe. For example, you get up in the morning and don a blue t-shirt. But somewhere in a parallel universe you chose a red one.

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Another mind-blowing theory of parallel universes derives from pure mathematical constructs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Max Tegmark’s explanation of this is quoted by Space.com. He says, “A mathematical structure is something that you can describe in a way that’s completely independent of human baggage. I really believe that there is this universe out there that can exist independently of me that would continue to exist even if there were no humans.”

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Finally, your brain might be relieved to hear, there’s the parallel universe theory. It’s similar to the infinite number of universes theory but develops the concept further. Scientists have actually put a figure to the number of different ways matter can be combined. Although it’s staggeringly high, it’s still finite. Since that’s a limit, then even if you have an unlimited number of universes, some have to be identical.

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Other universes, the theory continues, will be nearly identical but with the tiniest of differences. So, there are lots of “yous” existing in separate universes. Some of them are exact replicas of you – or you are an exact replica of them. Others will be incredibly similar to you but may have a tiny difference such as one finger a tenth of an inch longer than yours. And, of course, there will be many universes in which you don’t exist at all.

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Just to muddy the waters a little further, it’s worth noting a Stephen Hawking paper published not long after his death in March 2018. In an article on Cambridge University’s website about this study, Hawking stated, “We are not down to a single, unique universe, but our findings imply a significant reduction of the multiverse, to a much smaller range of possible universes.” So, Hawking clearly favors the multiverse theory as well, albeit in a limited form.

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As you can see, then, there’s a multiplicity of theories about possible multiverses, and some serious scientists don’t reject out of hand what sounds like a bizarre idea. But let’s get back to what those scientists working in the Antarctic were up to, what they found and how it was reported. It’s a tale of solid science mixed with what can only be described as some fevered press stories.

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We heard earlier that the researchers were working on a project called ANITA that involved using high-tech measuring equipment being lifted high into Earth’s atmosphere by a massive balloon. The scientists hoped to detect and identify rays and particles beaming into Earth’s atmosphere from space, in particular those elusive neutrinos.

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Neutrinos present a singular set of problems for scientists because of their outlandish properties. Speaking to CNN in May 2020 Peter Gorham, a University of Hawai’i at Mānoa physics professor, explained, “Neutrinos are these crazy, weird particles. No one ordered all of the crazy features they have, they just showed up, and we’re still trying to figure out what they are.”

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“The universe is chock full of them,” Gorham continued. “A billion of them go through our noses every second and we don’t even feel it.” So, researchers have every reason to research these strange cosmic particles, since they remain one of the great mysteries of cosmology. Nonetheless, there are some things that scientists do know about neutrinos.

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Neutrinos are highly unstable particles with not far from zero mass. Absolutely minuscule, they are able to shoot through all substances without undergoing any alterations. They can and do zoom around the universe in apparently unlimited ways. Scientists are most interested in trying to find out where neutrinos, and the cosmic rays that contain them along with other subatomic particles, originate from.

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Abigail Vieregg, a University of Chicago associate physics professor, explained the fascination of neutrinos to CNN. “To me, neutrinos are the key to learning about the universe at its most extreme,” she said. “They will let us learn about the sources in the universe that make the most energetic stuff that are raining down on us, like cosmic rays.”

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“They travel really far through the universe,” Vieregg continued. “While other particles get mixed up in the dust of universe, neutrinos are a pure, beautiful signal that point to where they came from. I think about them as a perfect messenger, and they tell us about sources from far away.” Vieregg’s enthusiastic words give you an idea of why those scientists in the inhospitable Antarctic launched ANITA into the heavens.

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The ANITA researchers were specifically looking for neutrinos. When these pass though Earth’s atmosphere and crash into an atom on the surface ice, they emit a burst of powerful radio waves that the ANITA instrumentation can observe from above. But something very strange happened in 2016. In fact, it happened twice.

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Two neutrinos the researchers detected appeared to come not from out space but from the Earth’s surface. We’ve seen that neutrinos can travel effortlessly through most matter. But scientists didn’t believe that they could penetrate an entire planet. So how could these cosmic neutrinos have appeared from beneath the Antarctic’s frozen surface?

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The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Alex Pizzuto, one of the authors of a paper about these anomalous neutrinos, elaborated on just why they were unexpected. He told the South Pole Neutrino Observatory’s website, “It’s commonly said that neutrinos are ‘elusive’ or ‘ghostly’ particles because of their remarkable ability to pass through material without smashing into something.”

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“But at these incredible energies, neutrinos are like bulls in a china shop – they become much more likely to interact with particles in Earth,” Pizzuto added. In other words, there was little chance of a neutrino penetrating Earth and appearing from beneath its surface. So far, so rational. But things went off the rails when the tabloid press decided to run with the story. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at that point the science became more than a little garbled.

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For example, British tabloid the Daily Star pulled no punches in its May 17, 2020, headline to a story dealing with the anomalous neutrinos. “NASA scientists detect parallel universe ‘next to ours’ where time runs backwards” the paper shouted. While it’s true that NASA are behind the ANITA project, that’s the only entirely accurate facet of the Star’s banner headline.

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It’s perhaps all too easy, though, to put the blame for this sensationalism onto the tabloid press. But even the august New Scientist headlined its version of the story with: “We may have spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time.” So how did the research in the Antarctic lead to these feverish articles about a parallel universe with backward-running time?

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We’ve mentioned a paper about the strange neutrinos and one of its lead authors, Alexander Pizzuto. It was published in January 2020. But there were in fact several papers related to the anomalous neutrinos. There was the initial one by the ANITA team in 2016 lead-authored by Peter W. Gorham, then another dealing with the strange neutrinos published in 2018. And according to a piece in Forbes, it was this 2018 paper that got some journalists a little over-excited.

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Entitled “Upgoing ANITA events as evidence of the CPT symmetric universe,” the 2018 paper’s lead author was Luis Anchordoqui. And the tabloids pounced on a sentence in the report that reads, “In this scenario the universe before the Big Bang and the universe after the Big Bang is reinterpreted as a universe/anti-universe pair that is created from nothing.” So you can perhaps have some sympathy with the press interpretation of the story.

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But Ibrahim Safa, one of the lead authors of yet another paper about the ANITA experiment, took to Twitter to express his frustration at the press coverage. He jibed, “NASA has discovered that y’all should not be getting your news from the New York Post.” The Post’s headline had been: “NASA scientists detect evidence of parallel universe where time runs backward.”

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But if those strange neutrinos weren’t evidence of the existence of a parallel universe, what were they? For a more cool-headed explanation, we can turn to the paper published by Pizzuto and others in January 2020. It was an investigation of the anomalous signals detected by ANITA based on information from another high-tech project in the Antarctic.

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That project is the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory. Located not far from the South Pole, this is an earthbound detecting system that also hunts for subatomic particles from space. IceCube uses in excess of 5,000 optical detectors set under the ice to hunt out such cosmic rays. But the instrument array didn’t detect the neutrinos that ANITA “saw.” This is despite the fact that IceCube is much more sensitive than ANITA.

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IceCube principal investigator Professor Francis Halzen gave his best explanation of what he’s described as “an unresolved problem” to CNN. He said of the weird neutrinos, “This is either the result of new physics, or of some unanticipated way that particles can reflect from the polar ice cap’s surface.” So, sadly for sci-fi buffs, it doesn’t look like we’ve found a parallel universe after all.

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