Monday, January 18, 2010

The Age of Entanglement


I'm unable to come up with a snappy opening here, so I'll just say that I'd like to recommend The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn, by Louisa Gilder.

As a grad student in the humanities, I am dedicated to ensuring that I never fulfill the stereotype by being ignorant or uneducated about science. There is, I'm sorry to say, an upper bound on my scientific knowledge, and it isn't a particularly high ceiling, but I insist on pushing up against it periodically. One of the greater regrets of my life is not taking better advantage of my former schooling in science and math. In college, thanks to some dedicated professors, and to my getting hired on as a tutor for a test prep company, I discovered that I wasn't, actually, perpetually unable to learn anything about math or science. This shouldn't be a surprise, but I assure you, I was shocked to learn that I could learn trig, and functions, and elementary physics.

I wish I could say that my failure to learn in my days in middle school and high school was a result of tracking, that I got called an "English kid" early on, and that my teachers put me into the "can't do math" track... but that isn't true. The truth is that I decided that I didn't give a shit about math or science, and despite my teachers telling me that I could do it, I decided I couldn't. In my defense, I was going through quite a bit in middle school and high school. But aren't we all. Anyway-- I wasted some really wonderful opportunities to make myself a smarter, better educated person, and I'm deeply sorry for that. Since my college days, I've tried hard to absorb math and science in books of popular (populist?) math and science instruction.

There are limits, though, like I said. Discovering a new facility in trigonometry and functions is a far cry from learning the calculus, and it has to be said that I very well might have found calculus beyond my ability. Like I said, I read a lot about science, but I only truly grok a portion of it. I have read A Brief History of Time three times all the way through, and bits and pieces many, many times. About the time I get to particle spin, I get to the point where I have to admit that I am reading much but understanding little. Thanks to a friend who taught me with patience many years ago, I think I understand special relativity, both on the level of visualization and on the level of math (which is of course an absolutely necessary element of truly understanding a physical theory). So I've got the classic abstracted explanations (two men throwing a ball on motorcycles while a third observer watches, the man standing on a train holding a flashlight, the train in the tunnel, the Michaelson-Morley experiment etc.), and-- and please don't test me on this-- the mathematical explanation. It's helpful that, in special relativity, the mathematics seem to proceed so logically for the use of pedagogy, relativistic principles leading from relative distance and time to relative speed, speed impacting momentum, momentum leading eventually to energy and the famous matter/energy interchangeability....

I have general relativity on the level of abstraction but not really on the level of math, which is a fancy way of saying that I don't have it. The famous conception of gravity as a warping of space time is not incorrect, and is an elegant way of explaining a complicated phenomenon, but absent of math I'm sure it is a distortion. (When I hear people explain the warping of space-time, like a weight warping sand, and then a rolling ball traveling into the warped sand, I worry that people are thinking of the ball "falling" into a warp in a way that would make sense here in earth's gravity well-- that is, that they are thinking of gravity, on the level of this analogy, in a way that is tautological, if that's the word. The ball doesn't fall like a water drop into a bucket but like a wagon wheel traveling in a well worn groove. Anyway.)

My knowledge of quantum mechanics is, frankly, barely knowledge at all. Not for lack of trying; I've read and read and read explanation after explanation, metaphor after analogy after symbol. But as has been famously said about quantum mechanics for a long time, you can't really understand it absent understanding the math, and "civilian" explanations of its many intricacies are both harder to understand and more distorting than the math. As I don't know where to begin to get the math to get the science, despite my attempts, I am ignorant of quantum mechanics on even an elementary level, and I wish I wasn't.

I'm getting quite far afield here. The book concerns entanglement, a part of quantum theory that concerns the connection (the entanglement) between particles that cause them to be linked, in a descriptive sense, in a way that persists even across vast distances in space. Entanglement is one of the major points of reference when people talk about quantum weirdness, the tendency of quantum mechanics to resist conceptual explanations or to create conceptual understandings that seem to defy some of our more elementary understandings of how the universe works.  There's controversy about this, but one aspect of quantum weirdness, when it comes to entanglement, is that from one perspective it seems that quantum entanglement defies special relativity, in that particles that are entangled can seem to impact each other at speeds and distances that would exceed the speed of light.

I suppose the point is that I found The Age of Entanglement smart and engaging despite my deficiencies in understanding its underlying concepts. On the level of instruction, no, the book didn't leave me grokking entanglement the way I would like to, but this is my own failing, not Gilder's. That's just another way of saying that Louisa Gilder is smarter than I am. And even absent that understanding, it's a really enjoyable book, as it's as much a history of a fascinating period of scientific progress as it is scientific explanation. It talks enough about the social aspects of science-- the disagreements between scientists, how consensus is formed, what goes into the scientific canon and what doesn't-- that even absent a basic understanding of the scientific material, it's entertaining.

One word of caution: Gilder lightly fictionalizes the history by creating "conversations" between the scientists from their writings. In other words, she'll take a line or two from something a scientist wrote, then a "response" from another, and add some conversational verbiage to it to make it into a kind of back-and-forth discussion. Laid out like that, it sounds like exactly the kind of thing that I would find annoying in a nonfiction work, and I'm sure for some, it may come across as gimmickry. To my surprise, for me, Gilder pulls it off. Had I heard about that aspect of the book before I picked it up (quite by chance), I likely wouldn't have read it. I am the kind of person who has to learn his lessons over and over again.

If you're at all interested, you might watch this video of a lecture that Gilder gave about the book. Also: this is undoubtedly sexist, but I feel compelled to say that Gilder is hella cute, and science is sexy.

9 comments:

paul said...

lol, I remember you posting about her a year or two ago (at which point I watched that whole lecture). She reminds me of various academic girls that I know, there's something very charming about the un-self-awareness ...

You should also check out the best popular/science related book that I've read in the last couple years, Wilczek's "The Lightness of Being," which explains the 'standard theory' better than anything else I've seen.

Freddie said...

You're right, I posted that up at the League. Completely forgot.

Will Wilson said...

Do you have any interest in the philosophy of quantum mechanics? It can be somewhat accessible without the math. If so, I have a couple recommendations.

Freddie said...

Please, I'd love to hear them Will.

DMonteith said...

"Discovering a new facility in trigonometry and functions is a far cry from learning the calculus, and it has to be said that I very well might have found calculus beyond my ability."

Nah. I was an English major with a math/science school experience eerily similar to yours, and I learned calculus over a couple of summers in my early 30's. If you have a facility for trig and functions, that will easily carry you through 'till you hit 2nd order differential equations--that crap makes no sense at all.

If you really want to learn calculus, though, don't try to do it on your own. The real trick is to just solve lots and lots of problems as you go, and I found that the structure of homework assignments for classes at the local community college to be really helpful in keeping up with that.

Even though I have no real "use" for calculus it really expanded my analytical toolkit in valuable though somewhat intangible ways. Highly recommended! A real eyebrow raiser is to follow it up with a calculus based introduction to probability--really good stuff!

dan said...

Great post. I'll agree the learning calculus is so worth the effort. Math (and especially calculus) is the natural language of physics and can help to give a more intuitive grasp of what's going on. Words can attempt to describe physical theories, but they reach a limit. As for quantum physics, I found Griffith's Introduction to Quantum Mechanics helpful, if you're interested.

The problem with understanding quantum physics isn't just the complicated equations, however. The way it describes the world is just really really weird. Strange and not at all how we experience everyday macroscopic phenomena but nevertheless confirmed by experiment after experiment. Objects (like a particle) have an associated wavefunction that describes it's state (in terms of variables like position, momentum, energy, spin, etc.) and takes the form of a probability distribution which varies in space and time and is forced to take on a value when "measured," and also two states can become entangled when they "interact" so that they become effectively a single non-local entity? The fact is, everybody, not just humanities people, has trouble understanding this picture of the world. We're only primates, after all!

Also Will, could you recommend anything that goes into the ontology of wavefunctions and the nature of measurement and things of that sort? Thanks.

Dale Ritter said...

In regard to understanding relativity, the new equations have consolidated that to a more coherent form. Now the time transfrom is linked into the mass transform to show that chronons vanish by transform into gravitons of mass. That puts the atom back on a classical Newtonian track of perception. These recent advancements in quantum science have produced the picoyoctometric, 3D, interactive video atomic model imaging function, in terms of chronons and spacons for exact, quantized, relativistic animation. This format returns clear numerical data for a full spectrum of variables. The atom's RQT (relative quantum topological) data point imaging function is built by combination of the relativistic Einstein-Lorenz transform functions for time, mass, and energy with the workon quantized electromagnetic wave equations for frequency and wavelength.

GT integral atomic wavefunction. The expression is defined as the series expansion differential of nuclear output rates with quantum symmetry numbers assigned along the progression to give topology to the solutions.

Next, the correlation function for the manifold of internal heat capacity energy particle 3D functions is extracted by rearranging the total internal momentum function to the photon gain rule and integrating it for GT limits. This produces a series of 26 topological waveparticle functions of the five classes; {+Positron, Workon, Thermon, -Electromagneton, Magnemedon}, each the 3D data image of a type of energy intermedon of the 5/2 kT J internal energy cloud, accounting for all of them.

Those 26 energy data values intersect the sizes of the fundamental physical constants: h, h-bar, delta, nuclear magneton, beta magneton, k (series). They quantize atomic dynamics by acting as fulcrum particles. The result is the exact picoyoctometric, 3D, interactive video atomic model data point imaging function, responsive to keyboard input of virtual photon gain events by relativistic, quantized shifts of electron, force, and energy field states and positions. This system also gives a new equation for the magnetic flux variable B, which appears as a waveparticle of changeable frequency.

Images of the h-bar magnetic energy waveparticle of ~175 picoyoctometers are available online at http://www.symmecon.com with the complete RQT atomic modeling manual titled The Crystalon Door, copyright TXu1-266-788. TCD conforms to the unopposed motion of disclosure in U.S. District (NM) Court of 04/02/2001 titled The Solution to the Equation of Schrodinger.

Mary Anne said...

Your post just came through on my google alert for entanglement. Had to laugh as I share much of your dismay as I struggle through books describing this new reality. One I came across that takes a playful approach and yet does the job of explaining the weirdness is R. Gilmore's Alice in Quantumland. I am curious about how your journey to understand has changed your own self-awareness. Do you live life differently as a result of knowing reality is quite weird? That is what I am working on currently.

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