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Quantum mechanics is very, very, strange
December 5, 2011 - Stephen Browne
"Scientists Link Diamonds in Strange Quantum Entanglement," reads the headline.
Oxford physicist Ian Walmsley, and a team of physicists led by a graduate student Ka Chung Lee, have demonstrated something called "quantum entanglement" in a laboratory.
Quantum entanglement is one of those very strange things that come out of the theory of quantum mechanics. The notion is that two particles, say electrons, that act on each other may still affect each other even if removed to opposite ends of the universe. (This is a popular way of stating a very subtle principle, bear with me.)
This has been demonstrated in laboratories many times before. Quantum mechanics has actually been around for a while now. It is counted the most successful scientific theory in history, measured by its ability to generate accurate predictions and has practical applications ranging from transistors to cryptography. The difference with this experiment was, the two objects the quantum entanglement was observed in, were small but perfectly visible diamonds, on a lab table at room temperature.
"...other researchers have succeeded in entangling macroscopic objects before, but they have generally been under special circumstances, prepared in special ways, and cooled to cryogenic temperatures. In the new achievement, the diamonds were large and not prepared in any special way, the researchers said."
This is seriously weird. We've grown accustomed to how strange the universe is at the subatomic level, but when it intrudes into our macroscopic reality things get a little uncomfortable.
Albert Einstein had a problem with quantum mechanics and its strange implications. He used to say, "God does not play dice," until his friend and colleague Niels Bohr told him, "Albert, stop telling God what to do!"
One wag later said, "Not only does God play dice, but sometimes he throws them where you can't see them."
I was trained as an anthropologist, not a physicist, but there is something eerily familiar here.
When anthropologists first studied belief systems about magic among different cultures, they identified some "laws" of magic that appear to hold across cultures. One is the Law of Similarity, usually stated as "effects resemble causes." Meaning if you want to make it rain, you'd probably create a ritual that involved pouring water on the ground somewhere amid the mumbo-jumbo.
Another is called the Law of Contagion, something once in contact with someone can be used to affect them. That is why for example, if you want to make a voodoo doll to curse someone you'd want use bits of their clothing, hair, nails etc.
(These were to the best of my knowledge first identified and articulated by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941) and written up in "The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.")
Am I crazy or does quantum mechanics look like voodoo? Might as well be for all I understand about it.
"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." Arthur Stanley Eddington (attributed)
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