The news was easy to miss, but it really was bigger than any other news this week (yes, even bigger than the actor who was found hanging dead in his hotel room). An experiment in physics was able to show the weirdness characteristic of the quantum world at work in the world as we know it.
The quantum world is the world of sub-sub-atomic particles, the stuff that makes up protons, electrons, and neutrons. It’s the world in which string theory folks say that existence is made up of nothing more than vibrating tones of energy (though others point out that string theorists have never proven that’s the case).
Anyway, the quantum world is certifiably weird. At this supersmall level, things appear to just pop in and out of existence. Also, separate bits of quantum stuff seem to be able to get entangled, meaning that even when separated, they interact across what are, at their scale, immense distances. What’s more, that interaction seems to be instantaneous. This is referred to as entanglement.
This kind of thing seemed to be a characteristic purely of the quantum world of weird vibrations – until this week. Yesterday, a team led by John Jost, a graduate student at the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, published a paper in the journal Nature that shows “quantum entanglement in a degree of freedom that pervades the classical world”. Translation: The weird stuff of the quantum world has now been observed taking place in our big world of physical particles.
Jost and team took two pairs of ions (one beryllium and one magnesium) in patterns of vibrating movement, the ions moving back and forth, toward each other and away from each other. Think of these as an atomic-scale machine, or a little repository of information of the sort that could be used in a nanocomputer, with different states of movement representing either a 0 or a 1.
Anyway, after the team of researchers set up the pattern of vibration, they separated the ion pairs by a large distance. With one beryllium-magnesium pair over here, and another beryllium-magnesium pair over there, 240 micrometers away. Then, they changed the pattern of vibration of one of these beryllium-magnesium pairs, and although they had not acted upon the other, far away beryllium-magnesium pair, the far away pair changed its pattern of vibration – right away.
This is akin to setting two pendulums swinging at a certain rate, then shipping one to China and the other to Nebraska, then changing the rate of the Chinese pendulum’s swing, and seeing the Nebraskan pendulum change its rate of swinging at exactly the same time. See the potential for instant communication, and even instant mechanics, over huge distances? See the apparent absurdity?
Actually, it’s not absurd. Science just discovered something new about reality that we thought wasn’t possible. What we once thought was absurd actually isn’t. This experiment gives new meaning to Gertrude Stein’s comment that there is no there there. There is here there, and there here.
Quantum entanglement isn’t just for the quantum world any more. It’s been shown to work in the realm of particles, which means that it could be affecting the way that molecules work, which means that it could affect the world as we see it. Entanglement hasn’t been scientifically observed at our macroscopic scale of perception, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be, some day. Perhaps entanglement is going on, but just in ways that are obscured, or in ways that we haven’t been able to interpret correctly.
Of course, experiments to prove that’s possible have yet to be done. Coming from the work just published from Boulder, Colorado, perhaps some experiments leading in that direction can now be imagined. Maybe not. Maybe entanglement can’t go beyond the atomic level that John Jost and his team were able to create.
We don’t know, but the beautiful thing about science is that it gives us a reliable way of finding out things that we don’t yet know. We don’t have to await divine revelations, or merely rely on what has already been written in old books. We can do amazing things and achieve mind-blowing insights through the application of disciplined thought.
(By the way, I am not a physicist, so I apologize if there are some details of the research I haven’t gotten quite right. I invite anyone more knowledgeable to comment in order to offer corrections to help me, and Irregular Times readers, understand. In the meanwhile, readers can take a look at a summary of this research at LiveScience.)