Sunday, 8 September 2013

Physics, homosexuality, and 'typical observers'

One of the strangest principles of physics that I keep coming across is that of the 'typical observer'.  For reasons I have never seen explained, we should have a problem in science if we aren't 'typical observers' of reality.  I have never been able to understand what this is all about, especially when physicists try and talk about future observers as if it's somehow possible to take a statistical sample which includes things which haven't happened yet!  Why 'observing' should have any scientific implication eludes me.  Does an observer have to be self-aware?  If so, why?  If not, then why aren't ants more typical observers?  What about bacteria?  Atoms?

I know that I'm not a 'typical observer' because I'm gay - so I'm not even a typical human!  I see this 'typical observer' stuff turn up in supposedly respectable articles in New Scientist.  If anyone can tell me what the point of this concept is, I would be grateful.

1 comment:

Steven Reeve said...

I've been thinking about this since our brief discussion on Twitter and wonder if, perhaps, being a 'typical observer' has nothing to do with what species we are, our sexuality or whether one needs glasses to see properly (I am very short-sighted). Framing it in those terms means we are all atypical in some respects.

Could it be more to do with whether we are typical in terms of our current state in relation to physical laws?

If we are very small (ie. approaching the Planck length) then our experience of physical laws is likely atypical compared to the vast majority of more massive bodies.

If we are moving fast (ie. approaching the speed of light), again, our experience of physical laws is likely atypical compared to the vast majority of bodies that are not moving so fast.