How the Act of Observation Changes How We See the Universe

Updated on June 28, 2020
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree. He likes to study cosmology to understand the Universe and how we fit in.


The act of observing anything changes it. You might recall from your college physics class that the attempt to measure scientific data affects our conclusion.

This article is a discussion of how our comprehension of the universe­ is affected by our observation.

Nothing in the entire universe is isolated. Everything affects everything else in one way or another. Forces control the universe that we have only begun to understand.

Scientists are anxiously studying quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and particle physics. We had yet to fully understand how space and time function together as a single entity.1

It gets more complicated when we begin to appreciate that the act of observation changes the nature of everything we try to understand. I'll begin this discussion with an explanation of that dilemma.

How the Act of Observation Changes Things

We cannot measure or analyze anything without changing the outcome. So there is no way we can ultimately envision the actual reality of our world.

I learned the following example in my college engineering days:

  • When we connect a measuring device to an electronic circuit to test its functionality, we change the function of the circuit.
  • The fact that a voltmeter, for example, is connected to a circuit, will change the way the circuit behaves. The circuit's new function is now related to the inclusion of the voltmeter.

That is true for everything in life, not just with electronics. Everything and everyone is different due to everything and everyone else that exists. Every single element in the universe is interrelated to one another.

I think this is true with our minds as well as physical objects. We relate to one another in such a way that only a complex algorithm can define, and we continue to struggle with our misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Evolution of Time and Space in the Eyes of a Human

As human beings, with human functioning brains, we are limited to comprehending only what our five senses allow us to conceive and experience. We may be limited in our understanding of the universe, but the space-time continuum goes beyond human imagination.

Considering that, we might assume there is more to it—more to the universe, more to life, more to the laws of physics.

Do the Laws of Physics Have Infinite Possibilities?

It's hard for the human mind to comprehend the concept of infinity. That's why we prefer to think that the universe started at a specific point in time: The Big Bang!

As I see it, the Big Bang could not have been the beginning. It was merely the starting point of the next stage of the continuation of time.

Before the Big Bang, the laws of physics may have been vastly different from what we know today.

Once everything gets sucked into a black hole, time itself becomes meaningless. Eventually, it all explodes into another Big Bang, another universe, and another timeline all over again. Maybe it will be very different in endless possible ways.

There may very well be an infinite number of laws of physics, even though there is only one that we are aware of that we can study. Everything we do is controlled by that one set of laws that rule the physical universe as we know it—presently.

Time becomes meaningless in a black hole.
Time becomes meaningless in a black hole. | Source

The Butterfly Effect

Everything we experience in our little corner of space, and in our small segment of time, is just a tiny part of the entire picture. We are part of the puzzle. Our very own existence has a strong effect on the rest of the universe.

Things on Earth are different because we are here. Every move we make causes something to change somewhere else, even in the outer limits of the universe—to a small degree.

Did you ever think back to things you've done in the past, and suddenly you realized how those actions affected the way your life is today? One little step can have a significant effect on the future, as well as in other parts of the world.

This phenomenon is known as the butterfly effect. A butterfly flapping its wings will, over time, cause considerable changes to the future.2

The only problem that stems from this fact is that when we try to analyze something or measure something, we cause it to change. So our observation of the way the universe is changing makes us see things not as they are.

Distinguishing Between Factual and Theoretical Hypotheses

Another problem is confusion with the difference between factual and theoretical hypotheses. To make this clear, let me start by asking you a question?

Do you believe in gravity?

You might be thinking right now, "What a silly question! Isn't that obvious?"

I bring that up to make a point about theories and facts because we sometimes misunderstand how we conclude our observation of data. Are we clear with facts, or are we accepting theories?

We can't deny that gravity is a fact. Can we? It's not a matter of belief, and it's not a theoretical observation. It's a factual observation. We can even describe gravity precisely with mathematical formulas.

However, we can only explain gravity with theories. There is no factual explanation for gravity, but it's an accurate observation. We accept the fact that mass attracts mass everywhere in the universe.

That same dilemma occurs with a lot of our scientific research. So are we believing in theories, or are we determining facts? Many times we just need to acknowledge our limitations.

Limitations With the Observable Universe

We are limited to how far we can see into the universe. That limit is 46 billion light-years.

The reason for that limitation is due to how far a photon could have traveled since being emitted from the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago.3

We call that the observable universe. There might very well be much more beyond that. Since the light from beyond that distance has not reached us yet, it’s as if there is a dark curtain surrounding our observable universe.

We can only analyze the movement of everything we observe in the universe as best we can, but determining the end-result of its evolution remains a mystery.

© 2011 Glenn Stok


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    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      eugbug - You mentioned some interesting points that I, ironically, had also written about in other hubs. One about "The Origin of Nothingness." Another about "The Emptiness of Matter and the Universe." I even gave my views of a possible solution to the problem with the Big Bang being interpreted as the beginning in "From the Big Bang to the Infinite Universe."

      By the way, protons and electrons do have mass, although infinitesimal. Protons have about 1836 times more mass that electrons. (Source: Wikipedia -> Electron). I do agree that atoms are mostly empty, as I also spoke about in one of the above hubs.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 

      4 years ago from Ireland

      Interesting concepts and I wonder if the human mind will ever be capable of understanding the Universe? Physicists tell us that both space and time began at the big bang which is something hard to grasp. So there was no "before" and no point in space where it all began, just nothingness. Even so called matter is a macroscopic phenomenon "in the eye of the beholder" and matter is mostly nothingness. Sub atomic particles such as protons and electrons have zero dimensions (although we like to think of them as little marbles whizzing around the place!).

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      8 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Thank you to tsarnaudova, d.william and R. J. Lefebvre (Ronnie) for your insightful comments. Each of you had added very useful additional thoughts to this discussion. I never thought so much would come from it, but I'm glad I created some inspiration for further thought.

    • profile image

      R. J. Lefebvre 

      8 years ago


      Everyone of us has a slightly different perception of our existence and the environment within and beyond earth. The more we know, the more we want to know. Our presumptions are surreal, because with each microgram of change our perceptions are routing to who knows where. Your hub may help us take another microgram step of our reality of space and time.


    • d.william profile image


      8 years ago from Somewhere in the south

      Good article. When you look at our existence in the view of its relationship to the total universe, it really puzzles me how this human race can be so minuscule in their concepts of what is right and wrong, and which religion is the only path to heaven.

      It certainly defies logic to see some people who sit in pompous judgment of others based on their own limited knowledge of the concepts of right and wrong. And impossible to understand how people can destroy the lives of others, so callously through their self righteousness and material gains.

      Your essay may be short in words but huge in conceptualism.


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