Nobel Committee Nods to Mystical Physics

The Nobel Committee is risk-averse. They don’t want to look foolish a generation down the road, so they have subverted Alfred Nobel’s original intent, which was to reward the most promising discovery of the current year, and instead they dip into the deep past. Yes, they avoid mistakes this way, but by the time a scientist receives the Nobel Prize, she usually is long past her prime, and no longer productive. Thus a prize that could offer independence to a young scientist pursuing radical ideas comes instead as a crown of official acknowledgment atop the recognition that a distinguished elderly scientist has already achieved.

Einstein’s Nobel Prize came 17 years after his Theory of Relativity, and even then the prize didn’t mention Relativity, which, in 1922, was still too controversial for their conservative tastes.

The other problem is that, too often, scientists die before their Nobel Prize comes along, and then the prize is awarded to secondary contributors instead. One egregious example was when Rosalind Franklin’s prize went to Watson and Crick.

This year, the posthumous winner of the physics Nobel was John S. Bell, author of Bell’s Theorem (1964). The Nobel Committee had squandered 26 years of opportunity when Bell died in 1990.

What is Bell’s Theorem about?

In 1905, a young Einstein, following quickly on the insights of Max Planck, contributed the second, compelling piece of evidence that atomic energy is quantized, that is, it comes in discrete packets of fixed size. But when the Quantum Theory was fully fleshed out in 1926, it had two features that Einstein found abhorrent, and until the end of his days, Einstein was convinced that they must be mistaken.

First, the quantum theory includes an element of randomness. Einstein: “God doesn’t play dice.”

Second, quantum theory violates one of the foundational ideas of Relativity theory, which is that influences propagate from their source at a finite speed. Nothing that happens here can affect what happens there until there has been time for a wave to propagate from here to there. This is sometimes called “locality”, and it is violated in quantum physics. Einstein didn’t like “spooky action at a distance.”

Late in Einstein’s life, his protege, David Bohm, devised an interpretation of Quantum Mechanics in which there is no randomness — but Bohm’s theory sacrifices locality, and it does so in such a wild and non-intuitive way that Bohm’s Pilot Wave theory has never been popular.

It was 1964, nine years after Einstein’s death, that John Bell published his proof that Einstein’s long quest to resolve the two features of QM that he didn’t like was, in fact, a fool’s errand. Bell’s Theorem demonstrates elegantly that you might get rid of randomness, but you would lose locality; or you might preserve locality, but then the random element would remain. Einstein’s wish to have it both ways was a logical impossibility. 

In this video, Tim Maudlin corrects a misconception of the Nobel committee, cites Bell, and explains what he demonstrated.

Nick Herbert contributed the most straightforward and comprehensible explanation of Bell’s theorem. His distillation of Bell’s proof was published in 1977. Thirty-five years after publication, his book Quantum Reality remains the clearest and liveliest introduction to quantum weirdness. 

The Parapsychological Connection

Tim doesn’t recognize the vast body of research in parapsychology that points to sources of information that don’t arrive via any avenues acknowledged by mainstream science. (Recent related book review. One classic book. Another.) But Nick is open-minded and aware, and he speculates intelligently about this. 

Bell’s Theorem proves that if Alice chooses to make one kind of measurement rather than another over here, it affects what Bob sees over there — even if “here” and “there” are far away, and even if Alice’s choice comes after Bob’s observation. This seems to be obvious grounds for precognition and telepathy. But there is a catch: Even though Bell can prove that these influences exist, they are always washed out in the statistics. No signal can be deliberately sent by Alice to Bob. Information is transmitted, but not in any decipherable way. 

Alice can affect the details of the quantum randomness that Bob observes, but cannot impose any identifiable pattern on that randomness. 

Nevertheless, the connection between quantum theory and parapsychological experiment is so strong that there must be something here that we are not understanding. Nick has done as much as anyone to explore this possibility and speculate about a future of physics where consciousness plays a fundamental role. His books Faster than Light and Elemental Mind are deep and thought-provoking. 

A key insight is that quantum “randomness” is not really random but can be influenced by conscious thought. Dean Radin and Stuart Kauffman speculate that the brain may be evolved to exploit this quantum connection to consciousness.

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