The Particle That Knows We’re Watching


If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably experienced the irrational belief that your team’s success relies on whether or not you’re watching the TV. If you’re a nerd, you’re probably familiar with the weeping angels from Doctor Who who never moved when being observed. Old wives have been documenting the dramatic effect observation has on whatever you’re watching when they noted that “a watched pot never boils.”

Tireless research by our interns and the people who hold our interns at gunpoint has found that watched pots do, indeed, boil.

This is, of course, just the human mind finding patterns where they don’t exist. To believe their eyes are controlling the outcome of the game, sports fans have to ignore the fact that they are one of thousands who probably believe the timing of their piss break is crucially important to the outcome of the game. The old wives’ tale is really just a testament to how boring life used to be for married women over the age of 30. AndDoctor Who is about an ugly guy who time travels via phone booth, so it’s not the height of scientific rigor. Except that the alien race of angels — statues when you looked at them, capable of moving at incredible speeds when you weren’t — were actually based on a real, observable scientific paradox known as the Quantum Zeno effect.

Nerds 1- House wives and their football watching husbands 0.

Over the course of a day spent observing some unstable uranium, scientists in Texas noticed something strange. Uranium is unstable and decays over time in a process called radioactive decay. And when they left it alone, unwatched in the petri dish, the uranium did as it was told. But whenever they tried to watch it, the uranium just sat there not really doing anything, like a pot of water mocking an old spinster from a burning stovetop.

The second day came and the same thing happened; the uranium that should have been breaking apart like a sandcastle getting pounded by the waves of each passing second just sat there mocking them. The lab reported their findings to other labs, presumably after putting each other through rigorous psychiatric testing. And somehow, against all reason and logic, it turned out the initial experiment wasn’t just everything in Texas being crazy like usual. Everyone else saw the same thing. Certain particles will never decay if you’re observing them, which means that you can essentially stop time by paying attention to certain particles.

“I’m God as long as I don’t blink.”

The paradox defies the law of entropy, as well as common sense, logic and we’re pretty sure the Harry Potter universe. This is the equivalent of taking photos of your child so much that she doesn’t age, or staring at last night’s turkey dinner so that it won’t go bad.

We know that certain unstable elements decay. We have evidence of it everywhere in nature. But put them under a microscope and they seize up like a dog who refuses to do the trick you taught him when the neighbor’s watching. Except radioactive isotopes aren’t supposed to be able to notice stuff like the giant eyeball staring at them behind that plate glass window.

So in case you ever feel like we’ve got the universe figured out, keep in mind that in certain conditions, the universe appears to be actively keeping secrets from us.

Nobody move. They’re watching.

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