Sorry, Einstein. Quantum Study Suggests ‘Spooky Action’ Is Real.

Oct 27, 2015

Image Credit: Frank Auperle/Delft University of Technology


In a landmark study, scientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands reported that they had conducted an experiment that they say proved one of the most fundamental claims of quantum theory — that objects separated by great distance can instantaneously affect each other’s behavior.

The finding is another blow to one of the bedrock principles of standard physics known as “locality,” which states that an object is directly influenced only by its immediate surroundings. The Delft study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, lends further credence to an idea that Einstein famously rejected. He said quantum theory necessitated “spooky action at a distance,” and he refused to accept the notion that the universe could behave in such a strange and apparently random fashion.

Einstein was deeply unhappy with the uncertainty introduced by quantum theory and described its implications as akin to God’s playing dice.

But since the 1970s, a series of precise experiments by physicists are increasingly erasing doubt — alternative explanations that are referred to as loopholes — that two previously entangled particles, even if separated by the width of the universe, could instantly interact.

The new experiment, conducted by a group led by Ronald Hanson, a physicist at the Dutch university’s Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, and joined by scientists from Spain and England, is the strongest evidence yet to support the most fundamental claims of the theory of quantum mechanics about the existence of an odd world formed by a fabric of subatomic particles, where matter does not take form until it is observed and time runs backward as well as forward.

The researchers describe their experiment as a “loophole-free Bell test” in a reference to an experiment proposed in 1964 by the physicist John Stewart Bell as a way of proving that “spooky action at a distance” is real.

“These tests have been done since the late ’70s but always in the way that additional assumptions were needed,” Dr. Hanson said. “Now we have confirmed that there is spooky action at distance.”

According to the scientists, they have now ruled out all possible so-called hidden variables that would offer explanations of long-distance entanglement based on the laws of classical physics.

The Delft researchers were able to entangle two electrons separated by a distance of 1.3 kilometers, slightly less than a mile, and then share information between them. Physicists use the term “entanglement” to refer to pairs of particles that are generated in such a way that they cannot be described independently. The scientists placed two diamonds on opposite sides of the Delft University campus, 1.3 kilometers apart.

Each diamond contained a tiny trap for single electrons, which have a magnetic property called a “spin.” Pulses of microwave and laser energy are then used to entangle and measure the “spin” of the electrons.

“I think this is a beautiful and ingenious experiment and it will help to push the entire field forward,” said David Kaiser, a physicist at M.I.T., who was not involved in the study. However, Dr. Kaiser, who is with another group of physicists who are preparing to perform an even more ambitious experiment next year that will soon measure light captured at the far edges of the universe, also said he did not think every scintilla of doubt had been erased by the Dutch experiment.


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15 comments on “Sorry, Einstein. Quantum Study Suggests ‘Spooky Action’ Is Real.

  • David R Allen
    Oct 27, 2015 at 5:28 am

    Maybe this explains irrational global warming deniers. They’re getting bombarded with entangled photons from Planet Carbon.

    Perhaps we should encourage an emigration policy for them – with a promise of untold riches!
    The alien planet, a so-called “super-Earth,” is called 55 Cancri e and was discovered in 2004 around a nearby star in our Milky Way galaxy. After estimating the planet’s mass and radius, and studying its host star’s composition, scientists now say the rocky world is composed mainly of carbon (in the form of diamond and graphite), as well as iron, silicon carbide, and potentially silicates.

    .At least a third of the planet’s mass is likely pure diamond.

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  • I never understand this . why is it action at a distance? the two photons have opposite spin . why are the spins said to be not present before observation? where does this pre experiment assumption come from?

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  • 6
    Robert Firth says:

    Let me first answer hardy’s objection. No, before observation, the particles do not have a definite state; they are in what is called a “superposition” of states. This has been proved experimentally a number of times; here is a reference:

    When the particle is observed, however, it is seen in a definite state; this is sometimes called the “collapse” of the wave function. More on this later.

    But whan two particles are emitted by the same event, they should have opposite spins, because of certain conservation laws that again have been proven many times. So in flight, they are in superpositions; after observation they are in definite states; these states are always opposite.

    In other words, when either particle is observed, the entire wave function, of both paricles, collapses; and as far as we can tell it collapses instantaneously, ie an observation of the second particle *before a signal can possibly have reached it from its partner” will find it in the opposite state. This is the “spooky action at a distance”, which of course the Theory of Relativity prohibits. [In passing: I happen not to believe the theory of relativity, but that’s not relevant].

    That of course leads to the first, and most disliked, explanation: the theory of relativity is wrong and action at a distance occurs. Get over it.

    There are, however, other explanations that don’t abandon relativity. The first is advanced action, ie a situation where the effect precedes the cause, ie information travels backwards in time. So the first observation sends a message back to the start of the experiment: “Castor to Pollux: in 12 microseconds I shall jump left; you’d better jump right” This message of course need travel (backwards) only as fast as the particles travelled forwards, and so never faster than light. I note that there is no law of physics whatsoever that excludes advanced causality; physics seems to be time symmetric. Open that can of worms at your peril.

    The second is Everett’s “many worlds”picture [Rev Mod Phys 29: 454–462].
    The superposition does not collapse at all; both particles remain in both states. But the entire universe splits: in one branch, we see Castor as left and Pollux as right; in the other, vice versa. When the observers compare notes – which again is information that need not travel faster than light – they see that their notes confirm the prediction. So do the other observers, whose notes record the opposite result.

    Hope that helps. By the way, if you think you don’t unserstand quantum mechanics, be of good cheer. I know I don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I have a PhD in the subject.

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  • For crying out loud, of course all things are connected, but evolution made filters allow individuality. The beauty of multiplicity is that it is NOT one, single blob-thing or pure white light or pure noise

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  • 9
    AbsarTaqvi says:

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the lovely explanation. Having just finished John Gribbin’s latest book on Erwin Schrodinger (as the text books are far more confusing, so resorted to a story book), I was again left struggling with the wave mechanics and all mind boggling (in the literal sense) implications that follow. Your explanation helped in having a precise outline to the core concepts.

    One question though: what do you mean by “I happen not to believe the theory of relativity”?. Of course quite a few theories breakdown in the quantum realm that otherwise work fine in the macro-world, but do you not believe (by believe I mean not accept the experimentally tested results) of relativity or do you mean you reject relativity because it does not work for the quantum?


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  • @Robert Firth – that was a great explanation, in my opinion. Thanks!

    But does this mean Einstein was wrong; that his Theory of General Relativity and/or his Theory of Special Relativity are, at some level, fundamentally flawed and must now be abandoned (albeit continuing in use until some better theory has been worked out to replace the existing scientific paradigm that we’ve inherited from last century)? Do these new findings merely supplement existing orthodox theory?

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  • Enjoyed Robert’s description above, but I still don’t get why we cant communicate FTL with this. I have read many descriptions of why, but they never make sense. Like, why cant you just do that 2-slit experiment on one side, where the photons manifest as either wave patterns or “bullets” depending on whether they were measured. Then far away, a second observer receives an entangled set and sees either waves or bullets arrive, and knows instantly whether they were measured?

    If we truly can’t communicate using entanglement, well then it’s a lot less impressive and “weird” than many of these media articles portray, isn’t it?

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  • 13
    Robert Firth says:

    In answer to TNathan:

    I proposed exactly this experiment on the newsgroup sci.physics more than 20 years ago, along with the math that convinced me, at least, that it would work.

    But even if it didn’t, entanglement might have its uses. You are Supreme Commander of the Terran space force, at war with the Klingons. They have a huge fleet poised to sail, and you have two smaller fleets, one in fromt of them and one behind them. You decide that one fleet will defend and the other attack, a classic “hammer and anvil” strategy. But which one?

    You can’t use ordinary signals, because the Klingons might intercept them. So you send from your flagship an entangled pair, one to each fleet. You know that one will end up jumping left and the other right, so indeed one fleet will attack and the other defend. But you don’t know which, and don’t care, because neither can the Klingons know.

    If the above sounds familiar, it was the Battle of Salamis.

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  • 14
    Robert Firth says:

    Just to close the loop on this: the famous 1935 paper in which Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen criticised quantum mechanics can be found at [Phys Rev 47, 777-780], and so is called the EPR paper. You can find an online copy here:

    The paper describes a “thought experiment” that would disprove the collapse of the wave function. When such an experiment was performed in reality, as describd in the source above, the result, to everyone’s immense lack of surprise, was that quantum mechanics had disproved EPR.

    Einstein was fond of “thought experiments”; his most famous one, intended to prove the Principle of Equivalence, is also fatally flawed.

    Indeed, if you think about it, the very idea of a “thought experiment” is incoherent. In a real experiment, we listen to Nature; in a thought experiment we are listening only to ourselves. Francis Bacon, in his
    Novum organum, warned us against exactly this conceit almost four hundred years ago:

    “It cannot be that axioms established by argumentation should avail for the discovery of new works, since the subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of argument.”

    Words every scientist should take to heart, in my opinion.

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  • Robert Firth
    Nov 2, 2015 at 3:39 am

    In a real experiment, we listen to Nature; in a thought experiment we are listening only to ourselves. Francis Bacon, in his
    Novum organum, warned us against exactly this conceit almost four hundred years ago:

    “It cannot be that axioms established by argumentation should avail for the discovery of new works, since the subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of argument.

    Words every scientist should take to heart, in my opinion.

    A very important lesson to be learned!

    Every space probe we have sent to planets, asteroids, or comets, and every new space telescope, has illustrated this by orders of magnitude!

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