Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You - Marcus Chown (2007)




Beam me up, Mr. Scott.

Captain James T. Kirk

A coin is spinning. The coin is in a strong box sitting in the mud at the bottom of the deepest ocean trench. Don’t ask what has set the coin spinning or what is keeping it spinning. This isn’t a well-thought-out story! The point is that there is an identical spinning coin in an identical box sitting on a cold moon in a distant galaxy on the far side of the Universe.

The first coin comes down heads. Instantaneously, without the merest split-second of delay, its cousin 10 billion light-years from Earth comes down tails.

The coin on Earth could equally well have come down tails and its distant cousin heads. This is not important. The significant thing is that the coin on the far side of the Universe knows instantly the state of its distant terrestrial cousin—and does the opposite.

But how can it possibly know? The cosmic speed limit in our Universe is the speed of light.1 Since the coins are separated by 10 billion light-years, information about the state of one coin must take a minimum of 10 billion years to reach the other. Yet they know about each other in a split second.

This kind of “spooky action at a distance” turns out to be one of the most remarkable features of the microscopic world. It so upset Einstein that he declared that quantum theory must be wrong. In fact, Einstein was wrong.

In the past 20 years, physicists have observed the behaviour of coins that are separated by large distances. The coins are quantum coins, and the distances are not of course as large as the width of the Universe.2 Nevertheless, the experiments have successfully demonstrated that atoms and their kin can indeed communicate instantaneously, in total violation of the speed-of-light barrier.

Physicists have christened this weird kind of quantum telepathy nonlocality. The best way to understand it is by considering a peculiar particle property called spin.


Spin is unique to the microscopic world. Particles that possess spin behave as if they are rotating like tiny spinning tops. Only they aren’t actually spinning! Once again, we come up against the fundamental ungraspability of the microscopic world. The spin of particles, like their inherent unpredictability, is something with no direct analogue in the everyday world. Microscopic particles can have different amounts of spin. The electron happens to carry the minimum quantity. This permits it to spin in two possible ways. Think of it as spinning either clockwise or anticlockwise (although of course it isn’t actually spinning at all!).

If two electrons are created together—the first with clockwise spin, the second with anticlockwise spin—their spins cancel. Physicists say their total spin is zero. Of course, the pair of electrons can also have a total spin of zero if the first electron has an anticlockwise spin and the second a clockwise spin.

Now, there is a law of nature that says the total spin of such a system can never change. (It’s actually called the law of conservation of angular momentum.) So once the pair of electrons has been created with a total spin of zero, the pair’s spin must remain zero as long as the pair remains in existence.

Nothing out of the ordinary here. However, there is another way to create two electrons with a total spin of zero. Recall that, if two states of a microscopic system are possible, then a superposition of the two is also possible. This means it is possible to create a pair of electrons that are simultaneously clockwise-anticlockwise and anticlockwise-clockwise.

So what? Well, remember that such a superposition can exist only as long as the pair of electrons is isolated from its environment. The moment the outside world interacts with it—and that interaction could be someone checking to see what the electrons are doing—the superposition undergoes decoherence and is destroyed. Unable to exist any longer in their schizophrenic state, the electrons plump for being either clockwise-anticlockwise or anticlockwise-clockwise.

Still nothing out of the ordinary (at least for the microscopic world!). However, imagine that, after the electrons are created in their schizophrenic state, they remain isolated and nobody looks at them. Instead, one electron is taken away in a box to a faraway place. Only then does someone finally open the box and observe the spin of the electron.

If the electron at the faraway place turns out to have a clockwise spin, then instantaneously the other electron must stop being in its schizophrenic state and assume an anticlockwise spin. The total spin, after all, must always remain zero. If, on the other hand, the electron turns out to be spinning anticlockwise, its cousin must instantaneously assume a clockwise spin.

It does not matter if one electron is in a steel box half-buried on the seafloor and the other is in a box on the far side of the Universe. One electron will respond instantaneously to the other’s state. This is not merely some esoteric theory. Instantaneous influence has actually been observed in the laboratory.

In 1982, Alain Aspect and his colleagues at the University of Paris South created pairs of photons and sent members of each pair to detectors separated by a distance of 13 metres. The detectors measured the polarisation of the photons, a property related to their spin. Aspect’s team showed that measuring the polarisation of photons at one detector affected the polarisation measured at the other detector. The influence that travelled between the detectors did so in less than 10 nanoseconds. Crucially, this was a quarter of the time a light beam would have taken to bridge the 13-metre gap.

At the bare minimum, some kind of influence travelled between the detectors at four times the speed of light. If the technology had made it possible to measure an even smaller time interval, Aspect could have shown the ghostly influence to be even faster. Quantum theory was right. And Einstein—bless him—was wrong.

Nonlocality could never happen in the ordinary, nonquantum world. An air mass might split into two tornadoes, one spinning clockwise and the other anticlockwise. But that’s the way they would stay—spinning in opposite directions—until finally they both ran out of steam. The crucial difference in the microscopic, quantum world is that the spins of particles are undetermined until the instant they are observed. And, before the spin of one electron in the pair is observed, it is totally unpredictable. It has a 50 per cent chance of being clockwise and a 50 per cent chance of being anticlockwise (once again we come up against the naked randomness of the microworld). But even though there is no way of knowing the spin of one electron until it is observed, the spin of the other electron must settle down to being opposite instantaneously—no matter how far away the other particle happens to be.


At the heart of nonlocality is the tendency of particles that interact with each other to become entwined, or “entangled”, so that the properties of one are forever dependent on the properties of the other. In the case of the pair of electrons, it is their spins that become dependent on each other. In a very real sense, entangled particles cease to have a separate existence. Like a much-in-love couple, they become a weird joined-at-the-hip entity. No matter how far apart they are pulled, they remain forever connected.

The weirdest manifestation of entanglement is, without doubt, nonlocality. In fact, it would seem that if we could harness it we could create an instantaneous communications system. With it we could phone the other side of the world with no time delay. In fact, we could phone the other side of the Universe with no time delay! No longer would we need to be inconvenienced by the pesky speed-of-light barrier.

Frustratingly, however, nonlocality cannot be harnessed to create an instantaneous communications system. Attempts to use the spin of particles to send a message across large distances might use one direction of spin to code for a “0” and the other for a “1.” However, to know that you were sending a “0” or a “1,” you would have to check the spin of the particle. But checking kills the superposition, which is essential for the instantaneous effect. If you sent a message without first looking, you could be only 50 per cent sure of sending a “1,” a level of uncertainty that effectively scrambles any meaningful message.

So although instantaneous influence is a fundamental feature of our Universe, it turns out that nature does exactly what is required to make it unusable for sending real information. This is how it permits the speed-of-light barrier to be broken without actually being broken. What nature gives with one hand it cruelly takes away with the other.


Arguably, the sexiest potential use of entanglement involves taking an object and sending a complete description of the object to a faraway place so that a suitably clever machine at the other end can construct a perfect copy. This is of course the recipe for the Star Trek transporter, which routinely “beamed” crew members back and forth between planet and ship.

The technology to reconstruct a solid object merely from the information describing it is of course way beyond our current technological capabilities. But, actually, the idea of creating a perfect copy of an object at a remote location founders on something much more basic than this. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it is impossible to perfectly describe an object—the positions of all its atoms, the electrons in each of those atoms, and so on. Without such knowledge, however, how can an exact copy ever be assembled?

Entanglement, remarkably, offers a way out. The reason is that entangled particles behave like a single indivisible entity. At some level, they know each other’s deepest secrets.

Say we have a particle, P, and we want to make a perfect copy, P*. It stands to reason that in order to do this it is necessary to know P’s properties. However, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, if we measure one particular property of P precisely—say its location—we inevitably lose all knowledge of some other property—in this case, its velocity. Nevertheless, this crippling limitation can be circumvented by an ingenious use of entanglement.

Take another particle, A, which is similar to both P and P*. The important thing is that A and P* are an entangled pair. Now, entangle A with P and make a measurement of the pair together. This will tell us about some property of P. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, however, the measurement will inevitably involve us losing knowledge of some other property of P.

But all is not lost. Because P* was entangled with A, it retains knowledge about A. And because A was entangled with P, it retains knowledge about P. This means that P*, though it has never been in touch with P, nevertheless knows its secrets. Furthermore, when the measurement was made on A and P together and information about some property of P seemed to be lost, instantaneously it became available to A’s partner, P*. This is the miracle of entanglement.

Since we already know about the other properties of P, obtained from A, we now have all we need to make sure P* has exactly the attributes of P.3 Thus we have exploited entanglement to circumvent the restrictions of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

The amazing thing is that, although we have exploited entanglement to make a particle P* with the exact properties of P, at no time did we ever possess any information about the missing property of P! It was transmitted out of our sight through the ghostly connections of entanglement.4

Calling this scheme teleportation is a bit of a cheeky exaggeration since it solves only one of the many problems in making a Star Trek transporter. The researchers of course knew this. But they also knew a thing or two about how to grab newspaper headlines!

As it happens, the Achilles’ heel of the Star Trek transporter turns out to be neither pinning down the position, and so on, of every atom in a person’s body nor assembling a copy of the person from that information. It’s actually transmitting the sheer volume of information needed to describe a person across space. Billions of times more information is needed than for the reconstruction of a two-dimensional TV image. The obvious way to send the information is as a series of binary “bits”—dots and dashes. If the information is to be sent in a reasonable time, the pulses must obviously be short. But ultrashort pulses are possible only with ultrahigh-energy light. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has pointed out, beaming up Captain Kirk could easily take more energy than there is in a small galaxy of stars!

Teleportation and nonlocality aside, the most mind-blowing consequence of entanglement is what it means for the Universe as a whole. At one time, all particles in the Universe were in the same state because all particles were together in the Big Bang. Consequently, all particles in the Universe are to some extent entangled with each other.

There is a ghostly web of quantum connections crisscrossing the Universe and coupling you and me to every last bit of matter in the most distant galaxy. We live in a telepathic universe. What this actually means physicists have not yet figured out.

Entanglement may also help explain the outstanding question posed by quantum theory: Where does the everyday world come from?


According to quantum theory, weird superpositions of states are not only possible but guaranteed. An atom can be in many places at once or do many things at once. It is the interference between these possibilities that leads directly to many of the bizarre phenomena observed in the microscopic world. But why is it that, when large numbers of atoms club together to form everyday objects, those objects never display quantum behaviour? For instance, trees never behave as if they are in two places at once and no animal behaves as if it is a combination of a frog and a giraffe.

The first attempt to explain the conundrum was made in Copenhagen in the 1920s by quantum pioneer Niels Bohr. The Copenhagen Interpretation, in effect, divides the Universe into two domains, ruled by different laws. On the one hand, there is the domain of the very small, which is ruled by quantum theory, and on the other there is the domain of the very big, ruled by normal, or classical, laws. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, it is when a quantum object like an atom interacts with a classical object that it is forced to stop being in a schizophrenic superposition and start behaving sensibly. The classical object could be a detecting device or even a human being.

But what exactly does a classical object do to stop a quantum object from being quantum? Even more importantly, what constitutes a classical object? After all, an eye is just a big collection of atoms, which individually obey quantum theory. This turns out to be the Achilles’ heel of the Copenhagen Interpretation and the reason it has always appeared to many to be a very unsatisfactory explanation of where the everyday world comes from.

The Copenhagen Interpretation divides the universe, arbitrarily, into two domains, only one of which is governed by quantum theory. This in itself is very defeatist. After all, if quantum theory is a fundamental description of reality, surely it should apply everywhere—to the atomic world and the everyday world. The idea that it is a universal theory is, in a nutshell, what physicists believe today.

It turns out we never observe a quantum system directly. We only observe its effect on its environment. This may be a measuring device or a human eye or, in general, the universe. For instance, the light from an object impinges on the retina of the eye and makes an impression there. What the observer knows is inseparable from what the observer is. Now, if quantum theory applies everywhere, we have a quantum object observing, or recording, another quantum object. The central question can therefore be restated: Why do weird schizophrenic states fail to impress themselves on, or entangle themselves with, the environment, whereas everyday one-place-at-one-time states do? An example may help.

If a high-speed subatomic particle flies through the air, it knocks electrons from any atoms it passes close to. Imagine it was possible to see a 10-centimetre-long portion of its track. And, say in that 10 centimetres the particle has a 50 per cent chance of interacting with one electron, kicking it out of its parent atom.

The particle, therefore, either knocks out an electron or doesn’t knock out an electron. But because the event of knocking out an electron is a quantum event, there is another possibility—the superposition of the two events. The particle both knocks out an electron and doesn’t knock out an electron! The question is: Why, when this event entangles itself with the environment, does it not leave an indelible impression? As luck would have it, it is possible to actually see an electron ejection event with an ingenious device known as a cloud chamber.

Clouds form in the air when a drop in temperature causes water droplets to condense out of water vapour. But this process happens rapidly only if there are things like dust particles in the air that act as “seeds” around which water droplets can grow. Now the seed—and this is the key to the cloud chamber’s operation—need not be as big as a dust grain. In fact, it need be only a single atom that has lost an electron—an ion.

A cloud chamber is a box filled with water vapour with a window in its side to look through. Crucially, the water vapour is ultrapure, so there are no seeds about which the vapour can condense. The vapour is held in a state in which it is absolutely desperate to form droplets, but it is frustrated because there are no seeds. Enter a high-speed subatomic particle. Where it knocks an electron out of an atom, a water droplet will instantly grow around the ion. The droplet is small but big enough to see through the window of the cloud chamber if properly illuminated.

So what would you see if you looked through the window? The answer is of course just one of the possibilities—either a single water droplet or no water droplet. You would never see a superposition of both—a ghostly droplet, hovering half in existence and half out of existence. The question is, what happens in the cloud chamber to prevent it from recording this superposition?

Take the event in which a water droplet forms. It was triggered by a single ionised atom. The same atom exists in the event in which no droplet formed. It just does not get ionised, so no water droplet forms around it. Say, this atom is painted red in both cases to make it stand out (forget the fact that you can’t paint an atom!).

Now, in the event a droplet forms, zoom in on an atom near the red atom. Water is denser than water vapour; the atoms are closer together. Consequently, the atom in question will be closer to the red atom than it is in the event in which no water droplet forms. For this reason, the probability wave representing the atom in the first event only partially overlaps with the probability wave of the same atom in the second event. Say, for example, that their waves only half overlap.

Now take a second atom in the first event. It too will be closer in the first case than in the second. Once again, their probability waves will only half overlap. If we now consider the probability wave representing the two atoms together, it will overlap only one-quarter with the second case, since 1/2 × 1/2 = 1/4.

See where this is going? Say the water droplet contains a million atoms, which actually corresponds to a very small droplet. How much will the probability wave representing a million atoms in the first event overlap with the probability wave representing a million atoms in the second event? The answer is 1/2 × 1/2 × 1/2 ×… a million times. This is an extraordinarily small number. There will therefore be essentially zero overlap.

But if two waves don’t overlap at all, how can they interfere? The answer is, of course, they cannot. Interference, however, is at the root of all quantum phenomena. If interference between the two events is impossible, we see either one event or the other but never the effect of one event mingling with the other, the essence of quantumness.

Probability waves that do not overlap and so cannot interfere are said to have lost coherence, or to have decohered. Decoherence is the ultimate reason why the record of a quantum event in the environment, which always consists of a lot of atoms, is never quantum. In the case of the cloud chamber, the “environment” is the million atoms around the ionised/nonionised atom. In general, however, the environment consists of the countless quadrillions of atoms in the Universe. Decoherence is therefore hugely effective at destroying any overlap between the probability waves of events entangled with the environment. And since that’s the only way we can experience them—what the observer knows is inseparable from what the observer is—we never directly see quantum behaviour.

1 See Chapter 7, “The Death of Space and Time.”

2 In fact, the quantum coins have to be created together, then separated, to show spooky action at a distance, which is another reason the tale of coins on different sides of the Universe shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As pointed out, it isn’t a well-thought-out story. It exists merely to convey one amazing truth and one amazing truth only—that quantum theory permits objects to influence each other instantaneously, even when on opposite sides of the Universe.

3 The information on the original particle, P, must be transmitted by ordinary means—that is, slower than the speed of light, the cosmos’s speed limit. So even if P and P* are far apart, the creation of P*—the perfect copy of P—is not instantaneous, despite the fact that communication between the entangled particles, A and P, is instantaneous.

4 It is worth emphasising that, even with entanglement, the most you can ever do is make a copy of an object at the expense of destroying the original. Making a copy and keeping the original is impossible.