The Secret Life Of Photons
This piece from New Statesman reports nothing new, but if you haven’t heard of quantum entanglement, you may find the phenomenon, to use Einstein’s description, “spooky.” Science writer Michael Brooks says looking out into the vastness of space and observing galaxies and black holes at incomprehensible distances staggers the mind:
It’s an extraordinary thing to see things that distant, but in many ways this is just cosmic stamp collecting. These discoveries are informative – breathtaking, even – but they don’t cause you to question your place in the universe.
If that’s what you’re after, focus on that phrase “light years”, one that astronomers use so casually. Herein lies a truly discomfiting mystery.
Light years are a measure of the distance a photon – a packet of light energy – travels in a year. It’s a useful measure because light is the fastest thing in the universe. Yet we are still getting to grips with the properties of photons and it seems that they don’t experience distance in the same way as we do.
Fifty years ago, a Cern physicist called John Bell outlined the weirdness of photons. In a 1964 paper that built on some of Einstein’s work, Bell showed that they defy all ordinary notions of time and space. The phenomenon Bell explored is popularly known as “quantum entanglement”. It involves what Einstein once termed “spooky action at a distance” occurring between two particles. The spookiness begins when we make two photons interact in a way that leaves them entangled – the information about one is partly held in the other. The particles are “complete” only as a pair. Then we keep one on earth while sending the other to, say, the Pillars of Creation. It turns out that we can instantaneously influence the distant photon’s measured properties, such as its direction of spin.
That influence occurs because the spins of an entangled pair of photons are random but linked. You can think of it rather like knocking over two coins that are spinning on their edges. If we poke the one on earth, it might come up heads (entirely at random). If it does, we find, weirdly, that an immediate knock to the other one out there at the Pillars of Creation will give us a tail.
This cosmic connection can’t involve any signals passing between them: it would have to be quicker than light. The only explanation is that photons inhabit a reality beyond the space and time in which we live out our existence.
What is the nature of that reality? And could its existence explain paranormal phenomena like precognition? Is it possible that the mind (as distinct from the brain) has access to this reality?
Notice I’m not making a religious claim here. But I do think that decades and centuries to come will find that the wall between the natural and the supernatural is a lot more porous than any of us quite realize today.
UPDATE: If you are not capable of recognizing that I said two sentences ago that I’m not making a religious claim by posing these questions, then I am not capable of posting your sputtering atheistic rebuke to me as if I were.