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Funny Things Happen When Space And Time Vanish

Of the many mysteries of modern physics, few compare to "nonlocality" in quantum physics. Nonlocality means that far away objects can influence one another instantaneously (or, at least, much faster than the speed of light). It is as if space and time didn't exist!

"Influence" may not be the right word here; in fact, we don't have a good word for it given that words are devices we create to express experiences anchored in our sensorial perception of reality.

When a ball hits the goal or a raindrop falls, we know there is a local cause: the kick, the heavy raincloud. In the quantum world, the world of electrons and photons, effects can occur without a local cause, something I explored here a few weeks back.

Experiments have verified nonlocality beyond any reasonable doubt.

Although experiments are made with particles such as photons and electrons, here is a human analogy from Seth Lloyd's Programming the Universe: A Quantum Scientist Takes on the Cosmos.Twin brothers enter two bars, one in Seattle the other in New York. If one asks for whisky, the other asks for beer; if one asks for beer, the other asks for whisky. The brothers can't communicate, but always ask for the opposite simultaneously. We don't know what they will order, but once one orders, the other's choice is irrevocably fixed.

Substitute now "brothers" for "photons," and "whisky and beer" for "vertical or horizontal polarization" and you've got the picture. In effect, it doesn't make sense to treat the two photons as separate entities: they make an indissoluble whole, a single entity that "exists" across whatever distance separates them. Experiments have verified this for distances ranging from a few yards to about 100 miles.

No space and no time rings of Jung's synchronicity, that funny feeling that you are connected to someone or something beyond time, that you guessed this or that was going to happen, a mysterious link that seems to defy the laws of Nature. Before we get too carried away though, it's good to remember that the human brain and pairs of photons are very different systems.

On the other hand, very serious scientists, such as Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner and his Princeton colleague John Wheeler, have considered the role of consciousness in physics and to what point it determines the reality in which we live.

We use a detector when we measure something small. We don't have direct contact with an electron or an atom. Its existence is registered when it interacts with (the electrons and atoms of) a detector and we hear a click or see a pointer move. In the orthodox interpretation of quantum physics, it is this interaction that determines the existence of the particle: before the measurement we can't say that the particle exists. Something only exists after it is detected.

Wigner and Wheeler suggested that without an observer to set things up and interpret the results, without a consciousness with intent, this measurement doesn't make sense. In this case, the particle's existence is contingent on its interaction with the human consciousness. More dramatically, consciousness has an active role in determining what exists.

Wheeler imagined an experiment where a particle goes through a double-slit obstacle and then meets a screen. This screen is movable and can be taken away. Behind it, there are two detectors aligned with each of the two slits of the obstacle. This way, without the screen in the middle, the detectors can tell through which slit the particle passed. There are thus two options: with the screen, the particle (as a wave) "passes through both slits" and we see an interference pattern on the screen made of dark and light stripes; without the screen one of the two detectors will click when the particle hits it and the particle "goes through one slit." Two very different paths, depending on the screen being there or not.

A basic diagram of the experiment.
/ Shaun Maguire
Shaun Maguire
A basic diagram of the experiment.

Wheeler added an amazing twist to this set up: take the screen away after the particle passed through the double-slit. This way, the observer controls whether the particle should create an interference pattern (as a wave) or just hit one of the two detectors (as a particle); the particle doesn't "know" which of the two it will be, or which path it must take. In other words, the observer determines the physical reality of the particle (wave or particle) backwards in time!

Remarkably, Wheeler's "delayed choice" experiment has been performed and confirmed in 2006 and again with even more stringent controls in 2012. Here is a video of physicist Alain Aspect (my bet for an upcoming Nobel prize soon) explaining it.

Somehow, observer and observed form an indissoluble whole that functions outside the boundaries of time.

Note, however, that the observer need not be a human, but a mechanical control that moved the screen in an out. Still, the intent is human. As Wheeler put it:

We have a strange inversion of the normal order of time. We, now, by moving the [screen] in or out have an unavoidable effect on what we have a right to say about the already past history of that photon.

He goes on to suggest that similar experiments can be made across astronomical distances, measuring the light from objects billions of light years away, light that has left them before Earth existed. And then the universe itself:

[The observer] gives the world the power to come into being, through the very act of giving meaning to that world; in brief, "No consciousness; no communicating community to establish meaning? Then no world!" ... The universe gives birth to consciousness, and consciousness gives meaning to the universe.

We don't know if Wheeler's intuition is apt or not, or if the extrapolation from particles to the universe even makes sense. Quantum correlations are fragile and hard to maintain. But his delayed choice experiment does make one wonder whether we define the physical reality we live in. It's a possibility that surely horrified Einstein but that experiments seem to be making ever more compelling.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter:

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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