Proposal Call to Examine the Physics of the Observer

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Double slit x-ray simulation. Photo credit: Timm Weitkamp
Double slit x-ray simulation. Photo credit: Timm Weitkamp

What does it mean to be an observer? Many problems in physics and cosmology include the involvement of observers, but without defining what an objective observer is and how subjectivity is avoided. The most famous example is the double slit experiment in quantum physics, which suggests that the behavior of a photon is determined by how it is observed. This is also known as the “observer effect.” As Werner Heisenberg wrote in his classic book, Physics and Philosophy, “This is a very strange result, since it seems to indicate that the observation plays a decisive role in the event and that the reality varies, depending upon whether we observe it or not. We have to analyze the process of observation more closely.”

Heisenberg’s call is being answered by an ambitious new program from the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi), supported by the John Templeton Foundation. “Physics of the Observer” is awarding a total of $2 million for research projects examining this issue. Applications are welcome in relation to physics and cosmology, as well as other fields, such as neuroscience, philosophy, biophysics, complex systems, computer science, and mathematics. Some questions include: What does being an observer mean? In a spectrum from most simple to most complex physical structures, which systems constitute observers? Are there interesting questions, to which the answers depend on how we think of observers?

In line with FQXi’s past programs, Physics of the Observer will feature support for foundational physics research, an international conference, essay and video contests, plus articles, blog posts, and the popular FQXi podcast.

Initial proposals are due on January 20, 2016. More information about the program can be found online.