Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Age of Entanglement : When Quantum Physics was Reborn, by Louisa Gilder

“This quantum question is so uncommonly important and difficult that it should concern everyone.”

-- Albert Einstein, 1908.

The concepts of quantum mechanics have fascinated me for a great many years. I’ve read dozens of books on the subject but am no closer to grasping the concepts underlying a mystery that perplexed Einstein himself until the day he died.

Einstein spent his entire life wrestling with the issues raised by the initial discovery of quantum mechanics in the year 1900. He was never really able to move past his initial frustration with the fact that under certain physical circumstances, two individual subatomic particles, far apart from each other, act in concert with each other in a way that violates all known explanations.

These two particles seem to influence each other simultaneously and remotely; communicating with each other by an unknown mechanism that would far exceed the speed of light.

Einstein ridiculed this phenomenon as “spooky action-at-a-distance” and called it “a sort of telepathic coupling” in his initial efforts to argue that someone must have had a few too many drinks down at the lab.

The phenomenon has since been proven to exist and this book is the true story of the people who spent (and are spending) their lives studying quantum mechanics, spooky action-at-a-distance, and are trying to make sense of it all. I really hope they figure it out in our lifetime because it is 100% guaranteed to be a jaw dropping revision to our sense of reality. [For a (relatively) quick overview of quantum entanglement, this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does as good a job of any on the web: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-entangle/]

What may be in store for us is a shock as big as the one that came to the citizens of Flatland in one of my absolute favorite books: The very brief (less than 50 pages) story of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott.

In Flatland, Abbott describes a world of people who live in a two dimensional world – a flat plane -- where men are polygons and women are line segments. They have no concept of up or down. And then, one day, a three dimensional sphere visits them and it rocks their world as it demonstrates how what they see in two dimensions is proof of a third dimension.

Such a world-rocking is likely somewhere in our future, and some very smart folks (string theorists) think that many additional dimensions exist and that all matter (and especially those spooky particles) is connected through one of those other dimensions.

At first, The Age of Entanglement was not at all what I wanted, because I was hoping for an account of the latest breakthroughs in the field and a description of new quantum theories. Instead I found myself reading a historical account of the characters, featuring a fictionalized recreation of their conversations. (The author drew on actual letters and speeches by the scientists in her effort to recreate various conversations.)

After the initial frustration at this artifice I found myself captivated by the story of how Einstein, Schrödinger, Oppenheimer, von Neumann, Bohm, Feynman, and of course Bell devoted much of their lives to thinking about and discussing the phenomenon of quantum entanglement.

Put another way, I did not want to learn about the historical context of their respective efforts and how they overlapped and interacted with each other. But I’m glad I did.

I recommend this book only to people who have a strong interest not only in quantum mechanics but in the stories of the scientists whose lives were and are tangled up in its concepts. Those folks will likely enjoy it a great deal.


Glen_Schuster said...

Bart never ceases to amaze with his infinite wisdom--really enjoyed the post. If you had the time, Bart, I'd depend on you to advance the quantum world, at least to come up with a theory (or, more importantly argue one) that takes us back in time, an supposed impossibility in our 3D world.

youshouldonlyknow said...

Head Status: Asploded