Some eighty years ago Albert Einstein derided the notion of quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” Today, according to author and journalist George Musser, “We’re starting to see the hazy outlines of an answer,” to questions about the how particles in different locations appear to act on each other. He is quick to add that there are still scientists who don’t really believe that non-locality is a real thing.
Musser is the author of Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time—and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). He spoke about the book and the science earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle.
Musser noted that Einstein was clearly bothered by some aspects of quantum mechanics, particularly the notion that randomness governs the universe. This led to his famous observation that God does not place dice.
“It was arguably Einstein’s number one concern,” Musser noted. “His deeper worry, actually the worry that led him to the worry about randomness, was the worry about non-locality. What is non-locality? How can this magic sorcery kind of thing be happening in the real world?”
That’s the quality that got Musser interested in writing about the subject.
“It’s the closest thing that we have in contemporary science to real, honest-to-god, Harry Potter magic,” he said. He noted that it turns up in many different sciences, and isn’t just a “freak show” over in quantum mechanics.
Space is constructed
Muster detailed the experimental evidence that has established that entanglement is a real phenomenon. String theory, loop quantum gravity, and other attempts to explain what’s happening have, at their cores, a similar idea, according to Musser. That idea is that space isn’t just empty and out there; it’s made of something.
“Anyone working on quantum gravity thinks that at some level space is constructed,” Musser explained. “That gives you the opening to deal with non-locality. No longer is that an insoluble puzzle that has been hanging in the air since Einstein’s days.”
Muster suggested thinking about water to illustrate the idea. A single molecule of H2O does not have the properties of water. It’s only when you get a whole bunch of that molecules together that water can flow or have surface tension.
“Likewise, if space consists of atoms, each individual atom is not spacial. Each individual atom lacks the properties we associate with spacial things,” Musser said. “Those spacial properties are derived collectively from the interactions among atoms.”
Given that idea, it’s possible that space can also change its state, just like water can boil and evaporate or freeze, and perhaps that’s part of what is driving our perception of different locations and entanglement.
“It seems that these things are in a predetermined location, but maybe that quality of being in a predetermined location is actively being generated all the time, below our level of consciousness, below the level even of our theories,” Musser said. “There’s some deeper machinery in the natural world.”
It’s a complicated concept to work into a 500-word blog post or a 45-minute lecture. You can listen to an audio recording of Musser’s talk on the Town Hall Seattle website. He is an engaging speaker, and Spooky Action at a Distance promises to be a good read.