The 2022 Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.
I’ve complained in the past about the Nobel prize awarding to “baskets” of loosely related topics. This year, though, the three Nobelists have a clear link: they were pioneers in investigating and using quantum entanglement.
You can think of a quantum particle like a coin frozen in mid-air. Once measured, the coin falls, and you read it as heads or tails, but before then the coin is neither, with equal chance to be one or the other. In this metaphor, quantum entanglement slices the coin in half. Slice a coin in half on a table, and its halves will either both show heads, or both tails. Slice our “frozen coin” in mid-air, and it keeps this property: the halves, both still “frozen”, can later be measured as both heads, or both tails. Even if you separate them, the outcomes never become independent: you will never find one half-coin to land on tails, and the other on heads.
Einstein thought that this couldn’t be the whole story. He was bothered by the way that measuring a “frozen” coin seems to change its behavior faster than light, screwing up his theory of special relativity. Entanglement, with its ability to separate halves of a coin as far as you liked, just made the problem worse. He thought that there must be a deeper theory, one with “hidden variables” that determined whether the halves would be heads or tails before they were separated.
In 1964, a theoretical physicist named J.S. Bell found that Einstein’s idea had testable consequences. He wrote down a set of statistical equations, called Bell inequalities, that have to hold if there are hidden variables of the type Einstein imagined, then showed that quantum mechanics could violate those inequalities.
Bell’s inequalities were just theory, though, until this year’s Nobelists arrived to test them. Clauser was first: in the 70’s, he proposed a variant of Bell’s inequalities, then tested them by measuring members of a pair of entangled photons in two different places. He found complete agreement with quantum mechanics.
Still, there was a loophole left for Einstein’s idea. If the settings on the two measurement devices could influence the pair of photons when they were first entangled, that would allow hidden variables to influence the outcome in a way that avoided Bell and Clauser’s calculations. It was Aspect, in the 80’s, who closed this loophole: by doing experiments fast enough to change the measurement settings after the photons were entangled, he could show that the settings could not possibly influence the forming of the entangled pair.
Aspect’s experiments, in many minds, were the end of the story. They were the ones emphasized in the textbooks when I studied quantum mechanics in school.
The remaining loopholes are trickier. Some hope for a way to correlate the behavior of particles and measurement devices that doesn’t run afoul of Aspect’s experiment. This idea, called, superdeterminism, has recently had a few passionate advocates, but speaking personally I’m still confused as to how it’s supposed to work. Others want to jettison special relativity altogether. This would not only involve measurements influencing each other faster than light, but also would break a kind of symmetry present in the experiments, because it would declare one measurement or the other to have happened “first”, something special relativity forbids. The majority, uncomfortable with either approach, thinks that quantum mechanics is complete, with no deterministic theory that can replace it. They differ only on how to describe, or interpret, the theory, a debate more the domain of careful philosophy than of physics.
After all of these philosophical debates over the nature of reality, you may ask what quantum entanglement can do for you?
Suppose you want to make a computer out of quantum particles, one that uses the power of quantum mechanics to do things no ordinary computer can. A normal computer needs to copy data from place to place, from hard disk to RAM to your processor. Quantum particles, however, can’t be copied: a theorem says that you cannot make an identical, independent copy of a quantum particle. Moving quantum data then required a new method, pioneered by Anton Zeilinger in the late 90’s using quantum entanglement. The method destroys the original particle to make a new one elsewhere, which led to it being called quantum teleportation after the Star Trek devices that do the same with human beings. Quantum teleportation can’t move information faster than light (there’s a reason the inventor of Le Guin’s ansible despairs of the materialism of “Terran physics”), but it is still a crucial technology for quantum computers, one that will be more and more relevant as time goes on.