Money for Nothing — A quantum quandary

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

February 25th, 2023

A few years back, a religious friend of mine wondered if, by being an atheist, I might be suffering from a lack of imagination. How, she wanted to know, could I look at the wonder and diversity of the universe and not see God’s hand in it?

Well, OK. I have the type of sense of humor where I played with saying, “The universe? What a lame thing! Just a big old nothingburger! I could have designed better with a compass and a blunt pencil!”

Of course, if you want to look at all of existence and ascribe it to one deity, or many, or none, all answers are equally valid. But anyone who claims to unequivocally KNOW the answer is either delusional or lying.

But my friend’s line of thinking was readily apparent. If the universe proved the existence of God, then the existence of God proved the inerrancy of the Bible. I pointed out that the Biblical view of the universe was that stars were just little pinpricks of light in the sky, perhaps a couple of miles up, and their only role was to provide shepherds and goatherders with a rough calendar so they could make their seasonal migrations. Not very imaginative. Then I quoted Arthur C. Clarke at her: “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” I don’t think she got it, and we essentially just agreed to disagree.

I began to understand how little we really know back in the seventh grade, when our science teacher gave us a quiz. You had to answer true or false to ten statements, which included “The solar system has nine planets and 31 moons” or “Sol is the only star that has planets” or “Earth is the only planet with life.” All ten reflected the state of scientific knowledge in 1963—and all ten were false. Two of the three examples have been definitely proven false, and the other one has no correct answer. No answer means not true. I scored 100%–the only student to do so, and the teacher was annoyed, surmising—correctly, as it happened—that someone had warned me what the answers he wanted were. A friend from an earlier class had given me a heads’ up. I wonder what that teacher would think if he knew that his irritation (I didn’t get punished) would contribute to a lesson I would remember clearly 60 years later. Isn’t that the sort of thing good teachers dream of accomplishing?

That same teacher taught us that light behaved both like a wave and a particle which in its own right was a challenging concept to grasp. He spared us the mind-blowing punchline which is that light behaves like a particle or a wave depending on if anyone is watching it or not. Yes, one of the fundamental properties of the universe exhibits physical characteristics like those found in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The latest scientific theory offered to explain this is called quantum nonlocality, which is a notion that a photon can be both a wave and a particle because it’s in two places at once, ‘each’ having the one set of characteristics. Yeah, in this case ‘each’ has to be in scare quotes. It’s a bifurcation of reality that occurs in quantum physics that goes by the name of ‘entanglement.’ A fellow named John Bell discovered that if you produce a pair of photons with the same spin, and you reverse the spin on one, the spin on the other also reverses. How did he do this? Well, that part’s simple. He just performed spontaneous parametric down-conversion (SPDC), and polarization (analogous to spin) rotators are implemented by waveplates. Nothing you couldn’t do with a compass and a blunt pencil. And no, your guess is as good as mine. But he proved it happens. One paired photon replicates the spin of the other photon, no matter how far apart they are. Even more disturbingly, the reaction of the twin appears to be instantaneous, which means faster than the speed of light.

I would love to go back in time to visit that science teacher, show him the present state of scientific understanding, and have him devise a new list of T/F statements. I doubt it would much resemble that old 1963 list. For instance, the notion of dark matter existed back then, but the evidence that the universe couldn’t behave in the way it does, or even exist other than as a unvarying field of hydrogen atoms, didn’t happen yet. Most matter in the universe is matter we cannot detect. And yes, it had to precede the formation of regular matter.

The latest intellectual outrage perpetrated upon us poor fools is the concept of quantum energy teleportation. The notion was first proposed in 2008 by Masahiro Hotta, a theoretical physicist at Tohoku University in Japan. He was trying to prove that there was no such thing as quantum energy teleportation, and wound up concluding that his experiments showed that yes, it was possible at the quantum level. The idea didn’t make any waves (or particles) since it suggested the transfer, or worse, creation of energy out of a vacuum. ‘Money for nothing and your chicks for free” as the old Dire Straits song says. It was filed alongside perpetual motion machines and aether, and largely ignored.

But, according to this month’s Quanta magazine, Hotta has been vindicated. The article states, “Now in the past year, researchers have teleported energy across microscopic distances in two separate quantum devices, vindicating Hotta’s theory. The research leaves little room for doubt that energy teleportation is a genuine quantum phenomenon.”

It ties in to the theory of dark energy, the notion that there is some sort of activity in a vacuum (and remember, your atoms are quite apart from one another and you are, in fact, 99.999% vacuum) that lies outside the universe of mass and energy.

Now, if my friend knew anything of the mysteries of the quantum universe, or even knew OF it, she could make a better case for the universe being guided or at least planned in some way. There’s one notion, a totally unscientific one since by its nature defies falsification. Superdeterminism. Paired photons don’t reverse spin by communicating, but because it was determined at the beginning of the universe that both would reverse spin at that very instant. It’s something that would appeal to the fundamentalist mind. But fundamentalism doesn’t leave much room for imagination—real imagination, and not the sort of imagining that translates to “why don’t you believe like I do?”

Still, my answer would have been the same. “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” And THAT requires imagination!

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2 Replies to “Money for Nothing — A quantum quandary”

  1. I want to make a couple of points.

    Quantum teleportation occurs at the quantum level, where 4 dimensional space-time is irrelevant; there are no dimensions as we understand them because this is the definition of non-local space.

    Dark matter can be more easily explained by MOND, which explains that at larger scales gravity works slightly differently, which makes sense if you consider that humans live in the equivalent of the middle of the scale between the smallest and largest measurements (Planck and the observable universe).

    Finally, Dark Energy is probably better understood as a constant of nature, from the curvature of space-time.

    As for superdeterminism, my opinion for what it is worth, is that this is an artifact of our limited ability to understand reality, which is constrained by our biology and where we stand between the two extreme ends of of the largest and smallest structures of the universe.

    1. I’m not sure there are dimensions of any sort at the quantum level. Every time I find myself wondering how the structure of our very existence could rise from such seeming chaos, I remind myself that in our own existence, the most chaotic arrangement of molecules, water vapour, forms utterly symmetrical snow by the simple removal of a small amount of energy.
      I’m not convinced of the variable elements of gravity at pangalactic scales, but lacking evidence either way I won’t reject it out of hand.
      Your comment on dark energy leaves me wondering if it and gravity is “interconvertible” as Isaac Newton once famously mused about mass and energy on our level.
      And yes, I think superdeterminism is bollocks, too.

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