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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Get Real

In the event you may have missed the news, the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, were honored for their “experiments with entangled photons, establishing a violation of Bell Inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.” Allow me to translate. The Bell referred to is the Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell, who is regarded as a pioneer of quantum theory. The experiments cited established proof that objects in the universe are not locally real.

Here's where it gets interesting. It was previously held that objects had specific defined characteristics independent of observation; that they were influenced solely by their immediate surroundings and any influence on their properties could not travel faster than light. The latter is what defines local in the sense of something being locally real. To put it even more simply, an orange is an orange even when we aren’t looking at it. This seems perfectly intuitive. It also seems intuitive to say that an orange is influenced by its surroundings—the physics of light and space among others can and do shape our perception of an orange under various conditions. But here is the catch, our intrepid team of physicists demonstrated that these two statements could not both be true—which is to say an orange cannot be both absolute regardless of whether it is observed and still be influenced by its surroundings. In short real—at least locally—isn’t real.

This work stands alongside other revelations that have emerged regarding quantum mechanics which stand many of the accepted principles of physics on their head. Quantum entanglement is one such, specifically the influence of one photon or even larger particles, up to and including very small diamonds, on another photon at a distance. Measurement also emerges as a fuzzy science as it has been demonstrated that the act of measurement itself influences the properties of matter, as Schrodinger hypothesized in the now infamous thought experiment regarding the cat in a box.

We might well ask, as Einstein once exclaimed, “Do you really believe the moon is not there when you are not looking at it?” Our senses betray us. We are conditioned by our perceptions to believe what we see, hear, touch etc. But as we know those senses can betray us into seeing or hearing manifestations that are described as illusions—but are products of atmospheric and natural anomalies. Maybe it isn’t so, perhaps what we experience is not illusion, but an artifact of local reality demonstrating its inconsistency.

Questions about reality are nothing new of course, they go back as far Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Surely humanity has had more than a passing interest in establishing what is of this world and what is not. Our agreement on a common understanding of what we see, feel and experience is what passes for reality for most of us most of the time. The devilry lies in what happens when we do not agree. Like witnesses at a crime scene, our fuzzy recollections, philosophical orientation and physical differences to say nothing of impaired memories can and do affect our agreement. And in the Phaedrus, we are presented with yet another reason our judgement may be suspect, the illusion of shadows flickering on the cave wall that represents our emotions influencing our perceptions. When you think about it, it is a wonder we even think we know what’s real. As the Scientific American article on this year’s Nobel Prize put it: “To paraphrase Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the demise of local realism has made a lot of people very angry and is widely regarded as a bad move.”

So why write about it? Do these experiments contribute in any way to our lives, to the ‘realities’ we contend with every day? Perhaps not in any immediately demonstrable way, but they are nevertheless important in both a practical and philosophic sense. The science behind this has enabled Quantum technology—super computers that can, under certain conditions, vastly out-perform conventional ones. But beyond the practical it is critical that we continue to advance our understanding of how this world in which we live actually works. At a time when science, facts, and critical thinking are under attack, when political charlatans even argue away our shared perceptions regarding such realities as climate change and re-write history to erase cruel injustices from our textbooks and the minds of future generations, we must continue the work of questioning our world and our place in the universe.

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