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The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2022 was awarded to three physicists, Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger, for their work on Nonlocality. What is Nonlocality, other than something that distinguishes physics from real estate?
Nonlocality is a fundamental property of Quantum theory. Something that happens in one place directly and instantly affects something elsewhere. This is not the propagation of effects, like the beating of a butterfly’s wings here affecting the price of eggs in China, with a long causal chain in between those events. This is direct and “spooky action at a distance” (as characterized by Einstein). It involves what is called “entanglement.” For example, a pair of photons created in a quantum event (that are thus “entangled”) might travel away from the event of their creation in opposite direction with opposite polarizations. Their status is described by the wave equation describing the quantum event, which describes a superimposition of probabilities, that says that both photons have both polarizations simultaneously. When the polarization of one photon is detected via a conscious observation (measurement), the other photon, though it be many light years distant, has its polarization instantly fixed, though there is no physical contact between the photons at the time of measurement. This is spooky action at a distance. This is quantum entanglement. This is Nonlocality.
From the beginning of the Quantum era (early 20th century), Nonlocality was a controversial concept. Einstein cited Nonlocality (which was originally called the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox) as one of the reasons he thought Quantum mechanics couldn’t be correct. He correctly pointed out that the upper limit of information transfer in the Universe is the speed of light, as demonstrated in his Special Relativity; thus, the instantaneous communication over large distances reflected by Nonlocality could not possibly occur. He suggested the possibility of “hidden variables” somewhere in the formulation of Quantum mechanics. Louis de Broglie postulated a “pilot wave” theory to make Quantum theory compatible with classical physics and answer Einstein’s objection. That idea never took off, though it was later elaborated by David Bohm (see his book, “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”) and still has some advocates, with modification.
Erwin Schrödinger, who had developed the wave formulation of Quantum Mechanics, was perplexed by Nonlocality, particularly with the interaction of conscious measurement and the wave equation of a quantum system. He presented his famous thought experiment of the ‘cat-in-the-box’ to show how consciousness collapses the wave equation. A cat is placed in a closed box, with a system involving a single radioactive atom, a geiger counter, and a flask of poison gas, so positioned that if the radioactive atom decays, the geiger counter detects it, which triggers the release of the poison gas and the cat dies. The scientist “collapses” the wave equation describing the system and creates the denouement of the experiment. Prior to the conscious observation (measurement), the wave equation describes a superimposition of probabilities, with both possibilities extant simultaneously until the observation is made. Thus the wave equation describes the atom as both decayed and undecayed with 50:50 probability of each, with the cat as both alive and dead, until the box is opened and the observation is made. The conscious observation creates the outcome of the quantum system.
The conscious interaction with the quantum system, affecting its outcome (the so-called “measurement problem”), drove Schrödinger into a sort of Vedantic pan-psychic view; he became something of a mystic, concluding that the only reality is Consciousness. That Consciousness interacts with the wave equation of a quantum system remains an unexplained conundrum of quantum physics.
Early in the Quantum era, different physicists had different views of Nonlocality as it related to conscious observation. Bohr more or less dismissed the consciousness/nonlocality relationship. John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner insisted on its fundamental and essential part of Quantum mechanics. Heisenberg was somewhere in between the two poles, and it appears was largely responsible for what came to be called the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, e.g., a pragmatic approach to understanding Quantum mechanics with experimental approaches that could be dealt with, while not entirely dismissing the more mystical view of consciousness/quantum interactions.
While much was written of various nature on this conundrum (“Dancing Wu Li Masters,” The Tao of Physics,” “Who’s Afraid of Schrödinger’s Cat,” “Wholeness and the Implicate Order,” “The Conscious Universe,” “The Interpretation of Quantum Physics”), the perspectives have ranged from the hardcore mechanical/materialistic/deterministic to the vague and unquantifiable. It remains that conscious observation/measurement interacts with the quantum world ineluctably. This has been demonstrated in double-slit experiments and arrays of half-silvered mirrors, in which observed quantum particles behave very differently than unobserved quantum particles. An unobserved photon, traversing an array of half-silvered mirrors to arrive at a target, takes every possible path simultaneously; an observed photon takes a single path. Why or how this happens remains unexplained. That a photon seems to “know” a prior, in an almost time-nonlocality type way, what it is about to encounter before it actually traverses the array, is simply not explained, or explainable. That is why Richard Feynman said, and it remains true today: Nobody understands Quantum Mechanics.
In the 1950s, as the Cold War was raging, a physics grad student, Hugh Everett, training at Princeton with the great John Wheeler (who developed the design of the first nuclear bomb, Ivy Mike, detonated at the Enewetak Atoll on November 1, 1952, with a 10.4 megaton yield), proposed his “Many Worlds” hypothesis of the collapse of the wave equation. The physics world paid a sort of a price for more or less neglecting the consciousness/quantum/measurement conundrum highlighted by Schrödinger, as this was indeed a far-fetched idea that appeared to egregiously violate all ideas of mass and energy conservation (how could the entire mass and energy of the Universe be instantly duplicated by a single quantum observation?).
Everett’s hypothesis was that the Universe split with the observed “collapse” of the wave equation into separate Universes, each in a separate but non-interacting reality, so that instead of just the collapse of the wave equation giving a particular outcome to the quantum process in our Universe, both possible outcomes occurred in those separate Universes. This meant that with every observation collapsing a wave equation, two universes came into being where only one had previously existed.
Wheeler, who was something of a visionary, gave some credence to the idea. Wheeler had proposed his “single electron” theory of the Universe, that the entire Universe was actually a single electron traveling forward (electron) and backward (positron) in team, such that any observation detecting an electron was a slice through space-time reflecting the local detection of the single universal electron.
Wheeler also authored a rather incredible Strong Anthropic Principle idea that we conscious observers participated in the creation process of the reality of the Universe–a Very Strong Anthropic Principle, indeed. And his Dewitt-Wheeler equation formed the basis of the idea of a Wave Equation of the Universe. So he was no stranger to some of the more remarkable ideas in physics (although some of his ideas were discarded by other physicists).
But, when Wheeler provided a copy of Everett’s dissertation to Bohr (with whom Wheeler had worked). Bohr panned the idea. Wheeler was a bit shaken, asked Everett to condense his dissertation (entitled “On the Foundations of Quantum Physics”). Everett did, to roughly a quarter of the original length, and received his Ph.D. in 1957. He promptly abandoned academic physics and worked on cold war strategies (such as Mutual Assured Destruction–Wheeler, his professor, had worked on the Manhattan Project and had been deeply involved in the development of atomic and nuclear weapons, and Everett wound up working on the strategy of their use in deference). So, the Many Worlds Hypothesis was born out of the conundrum of the “measurement problem,’ the collapse of the quantum wave equation by conscious observation.
The “many worlds hypothesis” of quantum mechanics remains an intriguing concept in the popular imagination. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist, has worked extensively on the idea, working out the mathematical and physical implications. He did so in his position holding the Feynman chair at Cal Tech. That the Many Worlds Hypothesis, and the implications for conscious interaction with the quantum cosmos, remains a fraught topic, is suggested by the fact that Cal Tech recently asked Carroll to leave (Carroll had previously been denied tenure at the University of Chicago, prior to taking the Feynman chair at Cal Tech). Not to worry, Carroll is going to Johns Hopkins, a university that appears more open to his rather philosophical approach to theoretical physics. At Hopkins, he is a Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy. Carroll is a confirmed atheist, who complains that too many scientists have a religious orientation!
In the 1960s, John Bell, an Irish physicist (and atheist), thought about this question of Nonlocality, and came up with a mathematical/statistical approach for experimental testing of Nonlocality with entangled quantum particles. He did this work in his spare time. His day job was at CERN, where he was a notable contributor to that institution. He published his idea, which came to be called Bell’s Theorem or Bell’s Inequality, in a minor publication that quickly went out of print. His point seemed to be to not draw attention to the fact that he worked on such things in his spare time. It was not a topic for polite conversation in physics.
Nevertheless, his idea was picked up by others, including the above-mentioned 2022 Nobel Laureates. Clauser, in particular, recounts being told, when he announced his intention to experimentally investigate Nonlocality, that this would destroy his career in physics. He also says that Richard Feynman was disdainful of his choice of research topic, apparently because he believed Nonlocality was essentially self-evident in quantum physics and it was somewhat cheeky to attempt to investigate it experimentally.
Perhaps Feynman feared that his statement that no one understands quantum mechanics would be invalidated. But, even with the Nobel recognition of these investigators of Nonlocality, no explanation for it exists. But the research done by the Laureates does, as far as it goes, confirm the reality of Nonlocality. And it has provided a technical basis for manipulating entangled quantum particles, which is essential for quantum computing. And the interest in quantum computing appears to be the reason why the Nobel committee finally (50 years after the fact regarding some of this research, that was done as early as the late 1960s to early 1970s) chose to recognize this work. The reason for the delay, as noted, is due to the impolitic (at least for serious physicists) nature of the topic. It remains an embarrassment to physics, inasmuch as no explanation of the phenomenon is forthcoming. It just is. A glaring, gaping hole in physical science. And particularly embarrassing because it is at the interface of the interaction of consciousness and the material world.Published in