It’s official: the universe is weird. Our everyday experience tells us that distant objects cannot influence each other, and don’t disappear just because no one is looking at them. Even Albert Einstein was dead against such ideas because they clashed so badly with our views of the real world.
But it turns out we’re wrong – the quantum nature of reality means, on some level, these things can and do actually happen. A groundbreaking experiment puts the final nail in the coffin of our ordinary “local realism” view of the universe, settling an argument that has raged through physics for nearly a century.
Teams of physicists around the world have been racing to complete this experiment for decades. Now, a group led by Ronald Hanson at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has finally cracked it. “It’s a very nice and beautiful experiment, and one can only congratulate the group for that,” says Anton Zeilinger, head of one of the rival teams at the University of Vienna, Austria. “Very well done.”
To understand what Hanson and his colleagues did, we have to go back to the 1930s, when physicists were struggling to come to terms with the strange predictions of the emerging science of quantum mechanics. The theory suggested that particles could become entangled, so that measuring one would instantly influence the measurement of the other, even if they were separated by a great distance. Einstein dubbed this “spooky action at a distance”, unhappy with the implication that particles could apparently communicate faster than any signal could pass between them.
What’s more, the theory also suggested that the properties of a particle are only fixed when measured, and prior to that they exist in a fuzzy cloud of probabilities.
Nonsense, said Einstein, who famously proclaimed that God does not play dice with the universe. He and others were guided by the principle of local realism, which broadly says that only nearby objects can influence each other and that the universe is “real” – our observing it doesn’t bring it into existence by crystallising vague probabilities. They argued that quantum mechanics was incomplete, and that “hidden variables” operating at some deeper layer of reality could explain the theory’s apparent weirdness.
On the other side, physicists like Niels Bohr insisted that we just had to accept the new quantum reality, since it explained problems that classical theories of light and energy couldn’t handle.