Spooky Action Gets a Call from Stockholm

All Nobel Prizes are interesting, but some are more interesting than almost all others

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EP spent its time last week reading up quantum entanglement. Instantaneous connections between far-apart locations – the possibility of “spooky action at a distance” that was dismissed by Einstein – turns out to have become the basis of quantum computing and fail-safe cryptography.

First I read The New York Times story: Nobel Prize in Physics Is Awarded to 3 Scientists for Work Exploring Quantum Weirdness. by Isabella Kwai, Cora Engelbrecht, and Dennis Overbye. I especially liked the part about John Clauser’s duct-tape and spare-parts experiment in a basement at the University of California at Berkeley that opened the laureates’ path to the prize. (Stories in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times each had distinctive strong points as well.)

The Times story led me back to MIT physicist/historian David Kaiser and his 2011 book, How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival.  I didn’t read it when it appeared, having a mild prejudice against hot tubs, psychedelic drugs, and saffron robes. I was wrong. I ordered a copy last week.

Next was a Science magazine piece from 2018, by Gabriel Popkin, that showed the discoveries well on their way to acceptance: Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ spotted in objects almost big enough to see.

Then came a Scientific American article, The Universe Is Not Locally Real, and the Physics Nobel Prize Winners Proved It, by David Garisto, that seemed to me to offer the most lucid explanations of the profound uncertainties involved. These are more daunting than ever in the face of irresistible technological evidence that they exist.

At that point I returned to the Nobel announcement, and skimmed the citations in the scientific background to see if the story was as I had been taught (by my mother, Annis Meade Warsh, who was herself entangled with science and religion!).  Sure enough: there among the citations was the history of the argument: from Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935; to Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen, in 1935; to David Bohm, in 1951; to John Stewart Bell, in 1964; and to Stuart Freedman and Clauser (the former having been Clauser’s graduate student), in 1972.  Imagine my surprise last year when I discovered the distinguished historian of physics John Heilbron was reading Bohm’s last book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the very title recommended to me by my mother not long after its publication, in 1980. I checked Wholeness out from the library. I could not fathom the implicated order.

In fact, the most beguiling explication of the prize I found was the fifteen-minute talk that Nobel Committee member Thors Hans Hansson gave to journalists after the prize announcement in Stockholm last week. The 72-year old theoretical physicist personified the combination of collective energy, sobriety, and delight that enables the KVA to keep the world abreast of developments, year after year.