Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Time Police Play Hardball

Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger won the Nobel Prize for Physics this year for their groundbreaking experiments in the field of quantum physics that verified Bell's Theorem.

One of the more unsettling discoveries in the past half century is that the universe is not locally real. “Real,” meaning that objects have definite properties independent of observation—an apple can be red even when no one is looking; “local” means objects can only be influenced by their surroundings, and that any influence cannot travel faster than light. Investigations at the frontiers of quantum physics have found that these things cannot both be true. Instead, the evidence shows objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement. As Albert Einstein famously bemoaned to a friend, “Do you really believe the moon is not there when you are not looking at it?”


Blame for this achievement has now been laid squarely on the shoulders of three physicists: John Clauser, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger. They equally split the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.” (“Bell inequalities” refers to the pioneering work of the Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, who laid the foundations for this year’s Physics Nobel in the early 1960s.) 
[D. Garisto, "The Universe Is Not Locally Real, and the Physics Nobel Prize Winners Proved It", Scientific American, 2022-10-06]

It might occur to you to watch a 'Tube video or two, or read a popsci article on this work (like the one from Scientific American above). I've done this, with a dilettante's interest in the matter. I urge you to be cautious, and show restraint. I'm not entirely joking.

I've been reading and watching material on this very topic for years now. And I find it deeply troubling. As did Albert Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (who were far far smarter than I've ever been) when they wrote their now-famous paper on the "EPR Paradox". They basically argued "the universe cannot work this way".

But alas, the results of actual experiments performed by these Nobel laureates (and which, remarkably, you can duplicate some of which just using three linear polarizing camera lens filters, which I've done) prove that indeed the universe is not "locally real". As John Stewart Bell (who died before winning a well deserved Nobel himself) showed, quantum physics implies that one of two things must be true: either things can interact in a non-local manner (exchanging information faster than the speed of light), or objects do not have intrinsic physical qualities (even basic stuff, like color or mass) until we measure them.

Regarding non-local behavior: I remind my fellow science fiction fans that non-local behavior does not imply that we can use it for faster than light (FTL) communication. There is no way to modulate the effect to carry data. And you really do not want FTL, since its implications for our perception of reality - regarding our ability to distinguish between cause and effect - are even more dire, an issue which becomes obvious after a little reading about Special Relativity.

Regarding the measurement issue: the idea that "objects do not have intrinsic physical qualities until we measure them" sounds suspiciously like "as an optimization, reality isn't rendered until it comes into the viewpoint of a character in the game".

This is a lot more disturbing than it might first appear. One of the possible explanations (not the only one, but perhaps the simplest one) is "superdeterminism", in which the future is every bit as fixed as the past. I've heard several physicists - both quantum physicists and cosmologists, for different reasons - say "there's no such thing as free will; get over it".

My favorite quantum physicist and science explainer, Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder, brought this topic up in her blog/vlog just recently.

Many headlines promptly claimed that this means spooky action is real. But this is not correct. Rather, the experiments showed that you either have to stick with quantum mechanics and accept spooky action, or you reject spooky action and accept superdeterminism. Which is why I keep saying we need experiments to test superdeterminism.
[S. Hossenfelder, "Science News Oct 12", Backreaction, 2022-10-12]

The phrase "spooky action" here refers to Einstein's description of non-local behavior - specifically the collapse of the wave function upon observation, not quantum entanglement - as "spooky action at a distance", an effect that directly contradicts his own Special Theory of Relativity (which has been experimentally verified countless times, in fact, every time you use a GPS receiver). I look forward to reading about the design of an experiment for superdeterminism.

But such an experiment might incur sanctions from the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Last night Mrs. Overclock and I started watching the MCU series Loki, streaming on Disney+. It's fun, and funny, and of course Tom Hiddleston (as the Norse God of Mischief) and Owen Wilson (as a TVA agent) are terrific. But the best part of it is that it basically posits superdeterminism in the form of a "Sacred Time Line". It features the TVA, a time-police bureaucracy, that insures that everyone conforms to it. TVA operatives can "reset" (their term) the time line back to before it was disrupted, and "prune" (ditto) alternate history branches off of the time line. These actions typically cause time line violators to cease to exist. Or, indeed, to not ever have existed. (Or do they?)

The funny thing about "no free will" is that I'm still happier if I live my life - trying to be a good a person as I can be - as if I had free will. It's a strategy I suggest for everyone.

(Slightly revised on 2022-10-24 for clarity.)