Attack of the Boltzmann Brains!

By Sean Carroll | September 10, 2009 8:56 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a provocative scientific idea will, before too long, end up in the hands of villains that must be fought by superheroes. Witness Boltzmann brains. Sure, they’ve already made a cameo in Dilbert, but the stakes were pretty low. Now Jim Kakalios (author of the excellent The Physics of Superheroes) sends along sends along a couple of snippets from The Incredible Hercules #133 — in which our intrepid protagonists are attacked by freak observers fluctuated out of thermal equilibrium!

Boltzmann Brains in The Incredible Hercules

Actually here they are described as “freaky observers,” rather than the more conventional “freak observers.” That description brings to mind Smoove B rather than Ludwig Boltzmann, but who knows? Maybe unlikely thermal fluctuations tend to be pretty kinky.

Boltzmann Brains in The Incredible Hercules

And yes, before you all start in: we know that Boltzmann Brains don’t really make for a credible alien menace, if you insist on being persnickety about what they supposedly really represent. It’s not that they “perceive” a universe more chaotic than ours — it’s that they would dominate the total number of observers if the universe really were more chaotic than ours. (Which it isn’t!) Also, they would tend to dissolve back into the chaos from which they came, rather than staging a coordinated attack on our homeland. Still! What a novel challenge for the Allies’ greatest hero.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Science and the Media, Time
  • greg

    Fiend Without a Face. not Boltzman brains, but still

  • NewEnglandBob

    This just encourages the “consciousness before matter” wackos.

  • Eyes Squared

    I’m impressed that the comics have had to go this far into science to find somehting that is confusing enough to go over mose everyone’s heads to make it seem like something was possible… We’ve come a long way from Superman being born under a red sun to Boltzmann Brains.

  • Arfnotz

    Boltzman Brain? I’ve had one for a few years. Can’t say its much handier than the regular one, despite the hype. Stll, the user interface is pretty cool.

  • Domenic Denicola

    Haha, I remember reading this when it came out a few weeks ago. I think the best part was when they started zapping people with their “brain blasts.”

    I’m pretty sure Amadeus (the character pictured) is just showing off his knowledge in an attempt to make the girl think he knows what’s going on, rather than actually thinking they’re Boltzmann brains…

  • Ellipsis

    The guy in the last panel looks just as confused as some of my thermodynamics students.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    “They’d perceive a universe much more chaotic and difficult to define than ours”

    They would perceive nothing unless they have sensory organs.

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  • CW

    Quick Aside: #9 – The link “Quotes of the Day | Science News” references Bad Astronomy, when it should be Cosmic Variance.

    Telling people who have wacky theories about things that contradict science and reason that they must have Boltzmann Brains has been more rewarding (and less detrimental to my own safety) than telling them that they are full of crap.

  • Eugene

    I like the dramatic pause between “A universe chaotic enough….” and “for something to appear out of nothing.” Sean, you should absolutely steal this line in your talks.

  • Mike

    Sean, you say:

    “It’s not that they “perceive” a universe more chaotic than ours — it’s that they would dominate the total number of observers if the universe really were more chaotic than ours. (Which it isn’t!) Also, they would tend to dissolve back into the chaos from which they came…”

    If we set aside the empirical fact that BBs do not dominate over normal observers, then from the standpoint of our present understanding, whether BBs dominate or not can be posed simply as a question of measure — the universe need not be any “more chaotic” than ours. [For instance, if our universe is all there is, the dark energy is cosmological constant, and the correct measure respects FRW symmetry, then BBs dominate; but I wouldn’t think one would call such a possibility “more chaotic” than those that fix the BB problem.]

    There will be BBs who perceive the universe as it is, chaotic or not. But, *typical* BBs will experience the minimal delusion necessary to qualify as a member of the reference class of observers in question — presumably this permits “perceptions” (really delusions) much more chaotic than ours. [That is, there are BBs who resemble Sean Carroll insofar as to have the same DNA and experiences, having evolved from more primitive life etc in a solar system like ours, only the solar system arose via quantum fluctuation and these Sean Carrolls looks into space and sees emptiness. But, among a reference class of observers defined by the memory of some set of experiences of Sean Carroll, the dominant BBs will be those who have false memories that by chance coincide with those of “normal” Sean Carrolls’, insofar as such correspondence is demanded. Insofar as it is not specified (for instance, if one does not demand all Sean Carrolls always have a white whiteboard in their office), then the BBs will have more chaotic perceptions (like writing-boards that change color from time to time). But again these “perceptions” are more chaotic because they are really delusions.]

    Also, while thermal fluctuation BBs will “dissolve back into the chaos,” quantum fluctuation BBs (in dS, for instance) would not. They persist as long as their life support permits, and indeed an entire solar system may fluctuate in this way and allow for evolution and “real” experiences etc.

  • Natalia Kiriushcheva

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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