Spooky action at a distance

January 23, 2009 | 21 comments
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I am a total NPR dork. I would LOVE to have Carl Kasell’s voice on my answering machine; when I was in middle school, I felt betrayed when I learned that Lake Woebegone wasn’t a real place; and I admit that I joined Ira Flatow’s Science Friday Facebook group (“for those who love Science Friday. Or Ira Flatow.”). In fact, all my scientific knowledge pretty much comes from either Science Friday or the SciFi channel.

That’s essentially my disclaimer before I jump into a discussion of quantum mechanics: my knowledge of quantum entanglement is limited to how much Ira Flatow could fit into a 22 minute segment. In other words, nowhere near enough knowledge to respond to the inevitable cries of exasperation by the all the quantum physicists who regularly read T&S…

A few years ago, Science Friday reported on a quantum physics phenomenon that Einstein contemptuously referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” The basic idea is that two particles (such as photons) if “entangled” and then separated will each somehow ‘know’ what the other particle is doing and respon in perfect unison to each others’ actions. According to the theory, even if the particles were billions of lightyears apart they would still act the same way, at the same time.  What bugged Einstein is that it seemed like the particles were  communicating at faster-than-light speeds. Einstein complained,

I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will, not only its moment to jump off, but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming house, than a physicist.

The idea is still a subject of intense debate.

Many experiments have tested the concept. “Science Friday” reported on a 2003 test where two scientists in Austria placed entangled particles on opposite sides of the Danube river – particles nicknamed “Alice” and “Bob” (apparently, it’s conventional to name particles in these experiments Alice and Bob). If the scientists on one side of the Danube prompt Alice to spin, Bob spins at the exact same time, without any prompting. Alice and Bob are the perfect pair.

One of the scientists explained that,

entanglement is spooky… it occurs when you have two quantum systems like two photons or particles of light and each one knows more about the other, has more information than anybody has the right to know about anybody else… they retain that knowledge [of each other] as long as they don’t get messed up somewhere along the way… they know more about each other than any sibling, sister, husband or wife…

As I understand it, the idea is NOT that Alice is controlling Bob’s behavior, or vice-versa – in fact, they aren’t even communicating any information; instead, Alice and Bob’s perfect unison is the natural byproduct of their perfect, intimate knowledge of each other.

Alice and Bob’s perfect unison reminds me of the scriptural injunction to “be ye therefore perfect” even as Father in heaven. It seems a pretty daunting commandment, to say the least – how do I achieve a perfect unity between my behavior and God’s will? Why, the same why Alice and Bob achieve perfect unison of behavior – by acquiring knowledge. From personal experience, I have learned that I am most capable and willing to conform my conduct with God’s will, when I am striving to understand God’s character. It reminds me of the principle Alma taught – the word has a great tendency to lead us to do that which is just. Catania, in the comments below, pointed to an excellent passage in Helaman that demonstrates the welding of Nephi’s will with God’s:

Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and has not sought thine own life, but has sought my will, and to keep my commandments.

And now, becuase thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will. ” (Helaman 10:4-5 – emphasis added).

A comment by Paul S., below, reminded me of one of my favorite Book of Mormon passages about the Atonement, 2 Nephi 9:21:

And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.

The Atonement itself is a type of “entanglement” – Christ welding himself to each and every one of us, coming to perfectly understand the “pains of every living creature.” Because of the Atonement, it’s impossible to describe my own pains and sufferings without simultaneously describing Christ’s pains and sufferings.

One final observation – “spooky action” also reminds me of the relationship shared by God, the Father and the Son – beings that retain their distinctiveness but nonetheless are perfectly unified in purpose. Here’s a parting quotation by Richard Bushman, describing the “eternal alliance” of the gods implicit in Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse:

Critics are wrong when they say Joseph Smith created a heaven of multiple gods like the pagan pantheons of Zeus and Thor. The gods in Joseph Smith’s heaven are not distinct, willful personalities pursuing their own purposes. The Christian trinity was Joseph’s model; the gods are one as Christ and the Father are one, distinct personalities unified in purpose and will. A free intelligence had to become one with God in order to become as God. The gods formed an eternal alliance, welding their wills into one. The idea of earth life was to join that alliance and participate in the glory and power of the gods. The way to become a god was to conform to the order of heaven and receive light and truth.

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21 Responses to Spooky action at a distance

  1. NOYDMB on January 23, 2009 at 12:41 am

    I get it, I like it.
    I wonder if the non Quantum physics’s people out there will understand it, but I like it.

  2. Eric James Stone on January 23, 2009 at 1:15 am

    > If the scientists on one side of the Danube prompt Alice to spin a particular way, Bob spins at the exact
    > same time and in the exact same manner, without any prompting. Alice and Bob acted in perfect unison.

    I believe that in most cases the entangled particles have opposite spins. If you measure Alice’s spin, you can then know that if you measure Bob’s spin, it will be the opposite.

  3. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Eric,
    Duly noted!

  4. Marc Bohn on January 23, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Good to hear Eric… heaven would be a boring place if we all spun the same way.

  5. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 10:16 am

    My two-year-old daughter’s favorite activity is spinning around in circles. “Twirl, daddy! Twirl!!” Her idea of Heaven is probably spinning for eternity.

  6. Nitsav on January 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Quantum entanglement has shown up in popular literature, like Dilbert. And it’s a cornerstone of one of Orson Scott Card’s characters in the later Ender’s Game books like Speaker for the Dead.

    And I recall an article in Dad’s Scientific American (or maybe American Scientist, which are not at all the same) which proposed using some further aspect of this as the ultimate cryptographic communications tool.

  7. Paul S on January 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Sheldon,

    Great Quantum insights. It reminds me of why THE textbook on quantum chemistry by Pres. Eyring’s father is still referred to by chemistry students as the black diamond–because it is the hardest thing on this planet.

    To your point about the command to be perfect as our Father in Heaven, I like your take re unison. I think it should be also pointed out that the command requires more than knowledge, even perfect knowledge. It requires us to submit our free will (which you have bolded above) perfectly to the Father’s will, an impossibility without the Atonement of Christ. I have always read this commandment as an injunction to repent and come unto Christ through the Atonement. The message being: you know you are fallen and imperfect, you know that without the Atonement you are literally damned, thus to be perfect come unto the Atonement and be perfected in Him who is mighty to save. Just my take.

  8. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Paul S: Thanks for the thought; I agree wholeheartedly that reaching perfect unison with God requires submitting (voluntarily) our will to His. I guess that I believe – based on personal experience – that voluntary submission of our will to God’s begins with acquiring knowledge of God’s character.

    First of all, I need to understand God – really know who He is – in order to know what God wants me to do. Second, the better I understand Him and His objectives, the more I *want* to submit to God. As I study the scriptures, I realize how merciful God has been to the children of men from the fall of Adam to the present, and as a consequence I want to submit my will to Him. Moroni 10.

  9. Paul S on January 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Sheldon, I agree completely with your point. As the Lectures on Faith point out, faith begins with knowledge of God. We must start with that. My only additional point is that while required, knowledge alone is not enough because we are fallen and thus require the Atonement–the grace of God. It is certainly through knowledge that we begin to gain an understanding of what the Savior went through in the atoning process and, like you, that knowledge causes me to love God, love my fellowmen, and desire to freely submit my will to the Father. In the end, of course, desire is simply not enough without the Savior’s sacrifice. Perhaps my point is too simple to belabor . . .

  10. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Paul, sounds great to me. Thanks for emphasizing the Savior’s Atonement. Your comment reminded me of one of my favorite Book of Mormon passages about the Atonement, 2 Nephi 9:21:

    “And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.”

    The Atonement itself is a type of “entanglement” – Christ welding himself to each and every one of us, coming to perfectly understand the “pains of every living creature.”

  11. Matt Evans on January 23, 2009 at 11:47 am

    1. If the scientists on one side of the Danube prompt Alice to spin, Bob spins at the exact same time, without any prompting.
    2. the idea is NOT that Alice is controlling Bob’s behavior, or vice-versa – in fact, they aren’t even communicating any information

    Can Sheldon or anyone else explain this seeming contradiction?

  12. Catania on January 23, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I love this post. I’m not a quantum physicist, but I AM a Science Friday/NPR geek, too. Anyways, this topic is totally mystifying, and I think that it your observation between the photons “Alice and Bob” and our willingness to be entangled in the Atonement and doctrine of Christ is right on…

    Here’s a good scriptural example of how it all pans out – when we are “entangled” in Christ’s Doctrine, and His Grace is “entangled” in us –

    “Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and has not sought thine own life, but has sought my will, and to keep my commandments.
    “And now, becuase thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will. ” (Helaman 10:4-5 – emphasis added).

  13. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Matt,

    I think the seeming contradiction is at the heart of the phenomenon – and it’s what bugged Einstein. It *appears* as if Alice is sending information to Bob at faster-than-light-speed, saying, “Bob, I just started to spin down, so you need to change your spin, too.” In fact, no information is shared between the particles (or at least, under the “no-communication theorem). Nonetheless, when Alice is prompted to change her spin, Bob responds instantaneously in like fashion – NOT because Alice is sending a “command” to Bob to change his spin. That’s what makes it spooky. Alice and Bob’s quantum states are so entangled that it has become impossible to describe Alice without describing Bob, and vice versa.

    The same might be said of God the Father, and the Son. We know that they are in perfect unison. If we know what God is like, then by virtue of that knowledge, we know exactly what the Son is like – and vice-versa. Their “states” (wills?) are entangled – it’s no longer possible to describe one without describing the other.

  14. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Catania,

    Another great passage! Thanks for pointing it out.

  15. Sheldon Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Nitsav,

    I haven’t read the Ender books in many, many years. I only have vague memories of the later Ender books like Speaker for the Dead (something about aliens with Portuguese-sounding names that sprout into trees?). You’ve encouraged me to re-read them – I am sure it will be a different experience than when I was 14.

    As for the practical uses of quantum entanglement, the jury is still out as to whether it can be used for something like cryptography. The Science Friday episode I mentioned talks a bit about that.

  16. clark on January 23, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    the big problem Card never dealt with is that once you allow practical FTL information flow (which typically quantum entanglement doesn’t allow) then you have time travel. And you lose the kind of free will that folks like Blake Ostler think we must have.

  17. Carborendum on January 23, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    As far as I’m aware, this phenomenon has not been tested at great distances (i.e. — several light seconds or greater). Thus there is still a lot we don’t know about this. If anyone has information otherwise, I’ll listen. At the same time, I believe this could still be a good metaphor for how the Father and Son are one, but I’m not convinced it is litterally so.

  18. Martin John Madsen on January 23, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I believe this is the first time I’ve seen quantum mechanics on T&S. Nice.

    As a quantum mechanic myself, I would like to make a couple of notes on the analogy you make. First of all, we (as physicists) stand on dangerous ground when we talk about one particle “knowing” about another. Photons, electrons, etc. are just inanimate objects that have no “memory”- they can’t have “knowledge” about anything in the sense that humans can.

    That said, there is something going on that these experiments show a correlation between particles that were entangled. Now, granted, correlation (Alice and Bob doing the same thing) is not all that fantastic– every time I roll dice, if the six comes us, the one always face down. That does not mean either “knows” about anything, nor it is very exciting. The quantum systems you mention are interesting because there is a correlation that follows the crazy rules of quantum mechanics. To me, this is the most exciting part about quantum physics- though we have a theory that agrees well with experiment, it is silent as to *how* the correlation exists.

    That said, the idea of relating celestial one-ness to a quantum correlation seems stretched (especially because we cannot predict what either Alice or Bob would show up as in our measurements- we can only say they are correlated). The analogy with the dice works just as well in terms of communicating the idea of a perfect correlation and is a lot less confusing to the general public.

    The other sticky part of this analogy is the communication part. Einstein was correct in that we do not have any way of communicating information faster than the speed of light. The quantum entanglement shows that *something* is communicating, but is is not information. Thus, faster-than-light communication (between Father and Son or between Alice and Bob) is still not possible (at least from what we currently understand).

  19. Spencer Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Ya know that wasn’t bad…very clever drawing on the science and religion…interesting.

  20. kevinf on January 23, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    I read once where the entanglement concept was compared to ripples in a pond, created by a stone dropped into still waters. The waves moving away from the disturbance in opposite directions are exact mirror images of one another, regardless of the distance. In that description, the “stone” was the big bang, and we are just witnessing the continuing ripples down through time and space.

    That is also a nice analogy for the creation, an event, like the atonement, which ripples down through our time and space, but the essential characteristics never change, ie “My name is Endless, and Endless is my name”.

    FYI, the cryptographic aspects of quantum mechanics are more closely tied to other characteristics of quantum physics, not so much entanglement. The application is that a quantum computer could both relatively quickly crack any current existing encryption scheme, and potentially create otherwise uncrackable encryption algorithms.

  21. Spencer Gilbert on January 23, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    From an engineering standpoint…Martin is 100% on…as the older of brother of Sheldon, that was cute comparison to make…certainly interesting to think about.