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In 1978, a physicist by the name of John Archibald Wheeler proposed a series of thought experiments, jointly referred to as “Wheeler’s delayed-choice experiment”. At the time, no practical apparatus was available to put them to the actual test; he was still able to predict their result.
His goal was to breathe new life into the philosophical interpretation of the mystery that is the double-slit experiment. That interpretation had famously occupied Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in a series of public disputes, which Wheeler references in the introduction to his own paper.
Wheeler’s 1978 paper is titled “The ‘Past’ and the ‘Delayed-Choice’ Double-Slit Experiment”; here it is in full for our readers curiosity (pp. 9-48). Before we explain any of it, here are short excerpts quoted below.
Let the reasoning be passed in review that leads to this at first sight strange inversion of the normal order of time. Then let the general lesson of this apparent time inversion be drawn: “No phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon”. In other words, it is not a paradox that we choose what shall have happened after “it has already happened”. It has not really happened, it is not a phenomenon, until it is an observed phenomenon. (p. 14)
Not one of the seven delayed choice experiments has yet been done. There can hardly be one that the student of physics would not like to see done. In none is any justification whatsoever evident for doubting the obvious predictions. (p. 40)
Does this result mean that present choice influences past dynamics, in contravention of every formulation of causality? Or does it mean, calculate pedantically and don’t ask questions? Neither; the lesson presents itself rather as this, that the past has no existence except as it is recorded in the present. It has no sense to speak of what the quantum of electromagnetic energy was doing except as it is observed or calculable from what is observed. More generally, we would seem forced to say that no phenomenon is a phenomenon until—by observation, or some proper combination of theory and observation—it is an observed phenomenon. The universe does not “exist, out there,” independent of all acts of observation. Instead, it is in some strange sense a participatory universe. (p. 41)
What Wheeler is saying, in substance, is that the universe does not exist independently of our observation of it. Through his experiments, he deepened the mystery of the double-slit experiment, by introducing a “delayed choice”. To the pedants’ dismay, Kim et al. finally put the matter to rest in 1999 by experimentally showing Wheeler’s predictions to be definitely correct.
In a nutshell: a photon emitted by a distant star and arriving on Earth unobserved was actually never emitted in the first place; if on the other hand it is observed when it arrives on Earth, that retroactively means it was emitted billions of years ago.
This is indeed what experimental physics show. It is so counter-intuitive it puzzles to this day the greatest scientists and philosophers. It also serves as a litmus test to identify the pedantic pseudoscientists, the Il Dottore of this world, those educated beyond their intelligence who have nothing to say but say it very well: they will claim to understand this perfectly and that it isn’t a source of wonder to them.