If you spent any time on social media in the later days of May 2020, chances are you saw a New York Post article from May 19 2020 about scientists “discovering a parallel universe” circulating on social media, which is apparently a place where time “runs backwards,” at least relative to our own:
In a scenario straight out of “The Twilight Zone,” a group of NASA scientists working on an experiment in Antarctica have detected evidence of a parallel universe — where the rules of physics are the opposite of our own, according to a report.
The concept of a parallel universe has been around since the early 1960s, mostly in the minds of fans of sci-fi TV shows and comics, but now a cosmic ray detection experiment has found particles that could be from a parallel realm that also was born in the Big Bang, the Daily Star reported.
It appeared that the New York Post sourced its information at least secondhand, and not from a science journal. It came from a separate tabloid, the Daily Star. As of May 21 2020, it was the New York Post‘s second-most “trending” story (along with a very clickable headline):
The headline shown in the sidebar: “NASA detects evidence of parallel universe that’s probably better than the one we’re in.”
On May 17 2020, the Daily Star carried an article which claimed:
NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) uses a giant balloon to haul delicate electronic antennas high into the cold dry air above Antarctica – where there is little or no radio noise to distort its findings.
There is a constant “wind’ of high energy particles coming from outer space – some of which are a million times more powerful than anything we can generate ourselves.
That page was littered with hyperlinks on words like “NASA” and “space,” but they led only to site tags, rather than external confirmation of the Daily Star‘s major claims about the very nature of physics. The “big if true” item continued:
Low energy particles – neutrinos – can pass completely through the Earth, barely interacting with the substance of our planet at all. But higher energy objects are stopped by the reassuringly solid matter of the Earth.
That means that high energy particles can only be detected coming “down” from outer space. To detect a heavier particle – a tau neutrino – coming “up” out of the Earth would imply that these particles are actually travelling backwards in time.
And that is exactly what the ANITA scientists have seen.
Finally, likely long after most people stopped reading and started sharing, the Daily Star linked to a New Scientist article from April 8 2020 (“We may have spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time”) which described three successive experiments seeking “evidence of high-energy particles arriving from space”:
IN THE Antarctic, things happen at a glacial pace. Just ask Peter Gorham. For a month at a time, he and his colleagues would watch a giant balloon carrying a collection of antennas float high above the ice, scanning over a million square kilometres of the frozen landscape for evidence of high-energy particles arriving from space … But it wasn’t what they were looking for. Moreover, it seemed impossible. Rather than bearing down from above, this particle was exploding out of the ground.
Incidentally, that article was “trending” as of May 21 2020, despite being six weeks old:
The findings were at the very least four years old — and no parallel universes had yet come of them:
That strange finding was made in 2016. Since then, all sorts of suggestions rooted in known physics have been put forward to account for the perplexing signal, and all have been ruled out. What’s left is shocking in its implications. Explaining this signal requires the existence of a topsy-turvy universe created in the same big bang as our own and existing in parallel with it. In this mirror world, positive is negative, left is right and time runs backwards. It is perhaps the most mind-melting idea ever to have emerged from the Antarctic ice – but it might just be true …
Moreover, the article was clearly popular — but only its first four paragraphs were visible to non-subscribers. The balance of its content was unavailable to those without a subscription, so people searching for more about the viral claims would come across “it might just be true” and nothing further.
In any event, the findings were quite old and trotted out for no good reason in May 2020 — probably solely to tack the predictably viral “NASA detects evidence of parallel universe that’s probably better than the on we’re in” headline on to the story. After all, if “NASA” says something, it’s got to be good, right?
Good for traffic, at least. On the morning of May 21 2020, “NASA” was trending on Twitter, and Reuters space reporter Joey Roulette tweeted:
Love how NASA is trending on Twitter over faux news of a "parallel universe," as if the agency isn't just six days away from launching humans to space from US soil for the first time since 2011
— Joey Roulette (@joroulette) May 21, 2020
Again, this time according to Scientific American in 2018, the atypical results were observed as early as March 2016:
There’s something mysterious coming up from the frozen ground in Antarctica, and it could break physics as we know it.
Physicists don’t know what it is exactly. But they do know it’s some sort of cosmic ray—a high-energy particle that’s blasted its way through space, into the Earth, and back out again. But the particles physicists know about—the collection of particles that make up what scientists call the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics—shouldn’t be able to do that. Sure, there are low-energy neutrinos that can pierce through miles upon miles of rock unaffected. But high-energy neutrinos, as well as other high-energy particles, have “large cross-sections.” That means that they’ll almost always crash into something soon after zipping into the Earth and never make it out the other side.
And yet, since March 2016, researchers have been puzzling over two events in Antarctica where cosmic rays did burst out from the Earth, and were detected by NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA)—a balloon-borne antenna drifting over the southern continent.
ANITA is designed to hunt cosmic rays from outer space, so the high-energy neutrino community was buzzing with excitement when the instrument detected particles that seemed to be blasting up from Earth instead of zooming down from space. Because cosmic rays shouldn’t do that, scientists began to wonder whether these mysterious beams are made of particles never seen before.
A paper on the topic was published in September 2018:
Since then, physicists have proposed all sorts of explanations for these “upward going” cosmic rays, from sterile neutrinos (neutrinos that rarely ever bang into matter) to “atypical dark matter distributions inside the Earth,” referencing the mysterious form of matter that doesn’t interact with light[.]
All the explanations were intriguing, and suggested that ANITA might have detected a particle not accounted for in the Standard Model. But none of the explanations demonstrated conclusively that something more ordinary couldn’t have caused the signal at ANITA.
A new paper uploaded today (Sept. 26 ) to the preprint server arXiv changes that. In it, a team of astrophysicists from Penn State University showed that there have been more upward-going high-energy particles than those detected during the two ANITA events. Three times, they wrote, IceCube (another, larger neutrino observatory in Antarctica) detected similar particles, though no one had yet connected those events to the mystery at ANITA. And, combining the IceCube and ANITA data sets, the Penn State researchers calculated that, whatever particle is bursting up from the Earth, it has much less than a 1-in-3.5 million chance of being part of the Standard Model. (In technical, statistical terms, their results had confidences of 5.8 and 7.0 sigma, depending on which of their calculations you’re looking at.)
If that word looked familiar — “preprint” — it’s because we have seen and talked about it a lot in May 2020, incidentally also as part of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it was a major component of reporting we have done about a “mutant coronavirus” and a very viral, but not at all science-based blog post on Medium. On the latter page, we defined preprints:
What [the blogger] linked was, in fact, labeled as a “pre-print,” or “research papers shared before peer review”:
A preprint is a full draft research paper that is shared publicly before it has been peer reviewed. Most preprints are given a digital object identifier (DOI) so they can be cited in other research papers.
In the linked explainer on pre-prints above, it is noted that “preprints are not the final form of a research paper for most authors.” The iteration linked by [the author] and the blog was a pre-print called “COVID-19: Attacks the 1-Beta Chain of Hemoglobin and Captures the Porphyrin to Inhibit Human Heme Metabolism.”
ANITA’s unusual findings were often framed as “breaking” the Standard Model (SM) of Physics. But in the Scientific American piece — which was very much less sensational — a physicist pointed out that other things don’t fit into the SM well either:
“Even though the SM works very well in explaining a plethora of phenomena, it still has many handicaps,” said Seyda Ipek, a particle physicist at UC Irvine, who was not involved in the current research. “For example, it cannot account for the existence of dark matter, [explain mathematical weirdness in] neutrino masses, or the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe.”
In other words, physics is weird. Physics being weird is probably the least weird thing about ANITA’s 2016 findings. And the outlet spoke to several physicists excited about the preprint and its potential:
Now, several scientists not involved in the Penn State paper told Live Science that it offers solid (if incomplete) evidence that something new has really arrived.
“It was clear from the start that if the ANITA anomalous events are due to particles that had propagated through thousands of kilometers of Earth, then those particles were very likely not SM particles,” said Mauricio Bustamante, an astrophysicist at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, who was not an author on the new paper.
“The paper that appeared today is the first systematic calculation of how unlikely is that these events were due to SM neutrinos,” he added. “Their result strongly disfavors a SM explanation.”
“I think it’s very compelling,” said Bill Louis, a neutrino physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was not involved in the paper and has been following research into the ANITA events for several months.
We would be remiss to point out that although the coverage of the 2018 paper in Scientific American did involve a number of very excited physicists, it lacked something specific and relevant to the May 2020 viral brouhaha.
At no point was the term “parallel universe” mentioned, not once. Nor did it mention “time going backwards.” In fact, the excited physicists typically clamored for… more research:
Every physicist who spoke with Live Science agreed that researchers need to collect more data to verify that ANITA and IceCube have cracked supersymmetry. It’s possible, Fox said, that when IceCube researchers dig into their data archives they’ll find more, similar events that had previously gone unnoticed. Louis and Bustamante both said that NASA should run more ANITA flights to see if similar upward-going particles turn up.
In terms of where the research might lead, again, it wasn’t to a parallel universe:
In other words, the ANITA anomalies could offer scientists the key information necessary to properly tune the LHC to unlock more of supersymmetry. Those experiments might even turn up an explanation for dark matter.
As for the preprint itself, the link still worked [PDF]. It was dated September 25 2018, and headlined, “The ANITA Anomalous Events as Signatures of a Beyond Standard Model Particle, and Supporting Observations from IceCube.” A blurb before the paper’s introduction read:
The ANITA collaboration have reported observation of two anomalous events that appear to be εcr ≈ 0.6 EeV cosmic ray showers emerging from the Earth with exit angles of 27◦ and 35◦ , respectively. While EeV-scale upgoing showers have been anticipated as a result of astrophysical tau neutrinos converting to tau leptons during Earth passage, the observed exit angles are much steeper than expected in Standard Model (SM) scenarios. Indeed, under conservative extrapolations of the SM interactions, there is no particle that can propagate through the Earth with probability p > 10−6 at these energies and exit angles. We explore here whether “beyond the Standard Model” (BSM) particles are required to explain the ANITA events, if correctly interpreted, and conclude that they are. Seeking confirmation or refutation of the physical phenomenon of sub-EeV Earth-emergent cosmic rays in data from other facilities, we find support for the reality of the ANITA events, and three candidate analog events, among the Extremely High Energy Northern Track neutrinos of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. Properties of the implied BSM particle are anticipated, at least in part, by those predicted for the “stau” slepton (˜τR) in some supersymmetric models of the fundamental interactions, wherein the stau manifests as the next-to-lowest mass supersymmetric partner particle.
If you recall, the New York Post was largely responsible for spreading the claim and causing NASA to trend on Twitter on May 20 2020. The next day, they followed up with an article oddly downplaying their own role in spreading the story — this time “according to a report on CNet”:
“The unusual ANITA events have been known and discussed since 2016,” Ron Ekers, an honorary fellow at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, told the outlet.
“After four years there has been no satisfactory explanation of the anomalous events seen by ANITA so this is very frustrating, especially to those involved,” he added.
The reports about the NASA experiment were culled from a recent paywalled article in the New Scientist titled, “We may have spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time.”
Another neutrino observatory at the South Pole, known as IceCube, has been following up on the ANITA experiment and also suggests the standard laws of physics can’t explain the odd phenomenon.
“In such a situation you start exploring even more extreme possibilities,” Ekers said.
But there are many competing theories that can explain things, including that the Antarctic ice may itself be giving rise to the curious events, according to the outlet.
Pat Scott, an astroparticle phenomenologist at the University of Queensland, said that while the theory “is plausible,” there are myriad other theories that can account for ANITA’s detections.
“There’s nothing that necessarily makes it a detection of a parallel universe,” Scott told CNET.
CNet’s reporting was a direct refutation of the viral, original article, with the headline, “No, NASA didn’t find evidence of a parallel universe where time runs backward,” and subtitled “Sorry, you’re stuck with this universe”:
Because the New Scientist piece is behind a pay wall, many of the subsequent reports on the parallel universe are cribbed from the opening paragraphs and don’t explain the full details behind the find, in which one of the scientists admits “there are one or two loose ends” for the parallel universe theory. There’s another neutrino observatory at the South Pole, known as IceCube, which has been following up on the ANITA observations and suggests the standard model of physics cannot explain these strange events.
There is a really interesting science story here, but it’s not the one you’re being sold. The ANITA experiment is mind-boggling in its own right. It looks for “ghostly” particles that pass through most matter. It has definitely detected something unusual and unexpected. There are plenty of competing theories that aren’t explored in the quick news hits, like the idea the Antarctic ice may itself be giving rise to these anomalous events.
Pat Scott, an astroparticle phenomenologist at the University of Queensland, explains the idea “is plausible” while suggesting there are many, many other theories that can account for the anomalous ANITA detections. “There’s nothing that necessarily makes it a detection of a parallel universe,” he says.
What this boils down to is simple: There’s so much we don’t know about neutrinos that astrophysicists and scientists are still trying to unravel. “We are absolutely sure that there is new physics out there to be found,” says Clancy James, a radio astronomer at Curtin University in Australia.
As the piece wrapped up, its author wrote:
When you see stories like these its good to remember “the Sagan Standard”, an adage uttered by the famed astronomer Carl Sagan. It goes “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” At present, we’ve got a great theory but we lack the extraordinary evidence to back it up.
News about scientists’ purported discovery of a parallel universe was predicated not on any new findings, but apparently on the way such a headline might play during a period of global distress, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It started with a tabloid, the Daily Star, picking up a six-week-old item in New Scientist, which was behind a paywall after a few extremely juicy introductory paragraphs. The original findings appeared in March 2016, and scientists had yet to determine a “parallel universe” was behind them. But nothing new was discovered in May 2020, and physicists were quick to de-sensationalize the claim — in pieces viewed and shared far less, because they were much less fun.