Thursday, 26 February 2015
The Man with Two Brains
Life's mundane travails leave me untouched, my cerebellum hardly ever breaks out in a sweat as I glide effortless thro' life's choppy seas.
Frankly, to keep me in the peak of cranium fitness I need to do 50 rounds with Richard Feynman - and I'd have one hand tied behind my back and half my brain removed. Stephen Hawkins refuses my challenges as does Stephen Fry, and Richard Dawkins just ends up having temper tantrums when I crush him under my intellectual weight.
So last Saturday I approached the British Library in the hope that there I would find a task fittingly fantastical for my mega brain power. I thought, as I passed the gorgeously Gothic St Pancras hotel, I'm born out of my time. My milieu would have been the 15th or 16th century: I would have shared the Firmament with Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Cromwell. At a pinch the 19th century might have accommodated my genius as Burnel and I instigated the Space Age and Kelvin, along with Faraday and Maxwell, helped me usher in quantum mechanics just in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
I was to attend a New Scientist Live Programme on "The Quantum World". Frankly, little tiny things hold no fear for me. Photons and Higgs Bosons are my drinking partners - usually a pint of Bose-Einstein condensate. Collapsing wave functions and the many universe postulate just make me giggle. I was looking forward to telling Jim Al-Khalili that he might as well pack his bags and try his hand at needlecraft.
The very smart British Library lecture theatre was straining to hold us all in, as a day of talks beckoned. Talk 1 "Why is the world quantum" by Vlatko Vedral. "O.K. Vlatko hit me with all you have quantum wise." He did, but I rolled with it, as I did with Jim and Naomi, Jeremy and David. All their talks on different aspects of the quantum world held our attention and during lunch and coffee breaks the intellectual toing and froing continued.
Except as I left the British Library, I was strangely troubled. It was Einstein's "spooky action at a distance": quantum entanglement. It was Stephanie Wehner and her talk "The strange features of the quantum world" that very effectively slipped in the knife. It was the second talk of the day and it had me puzzled.
It's all to do with what happens when you create two photons with opposite and equal spin. You don't know what the spins are but experiment shows that if you measure the correlation of the spins (using two detecting devices) you find it's greater than you would expect classical methods to predict. The correlation you get is best explained by quantum physics.
Somehow, when you look at one photon (the detector clicks) the other photon knows instantaneously what's happened to its companion. No information about the state of the first photon is transmitted to the second. Even if it were since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light it would be impossible for the information to reach the second photon in time to affect the measurement.
Somehow the two particles at their creation are entangled. You can't describe one without describing the other. That's spooky; non local, which is why Einstein wasn't happy with it.
It's mind blowing stuff, and I have spent much of this week trying to get my head round it. I've watched endless videos on YouTube (Do American professors realise how dorkish they look?) and I'm still not there.
It's got so bad that this entanglement business is affecting my everyday life.
We have two female friends called Chris who live in our road. One lives down from us with her partner Andy, the other lives almost equidistant up the road with her partner Gregg. Yesterday was one of the Chris's birthday and the missus had bought her a present. As 'er in doors was busy with work she asked me to deliver the present to Chris, which I did....
When she returned home the wife asked had I delivered the present. I said I had. I explained Chris wasn't in: she was at work but I handed it to Andy.
I have never seen my wife so angry before. She screamed, she stamped her feet, banged the table and called me some rather unsavoury names. "I knew it, I knew you'd get it wrong. I nearly phoned you up just to check. Why can't I trust you to do anything right."
For a moment I thought of trying to explain that this was rather like quantum entanglement, but decided it might not be appreciated. "Go back and get the present, this instant!"
Which I did.
A rather surprised Andy, smilingly handed me the present I having explained what had happened. "I haven't told Chris about "the present", so it's alright."he said. I thanked him and bowed as I backed out of their front door.
Present in hand I rushed up the road to the house of the second Chris, knocked on the door, to be greeted by Lottie and Gregg, Chris's partner. Having been peed on by Lottie in her excitement to see me, I quickly explained to Gregg what had happened and handed over the gift. Gregg tried to shut the door on me but convulsions of laughter prevented that.
I returned home, and swore on the Bible, crossing my heart and hoping to die, that the right present had been delivered to the right Chris.
That wasn't the end of it. Texts started to cascade through the aether. "Message from Chris de Burgh: thanks for the pressie and card." Chris at no 36 says thanks; she won't tell her husband", "Chrissy Hynde is suing: Chris Akabusi is touched." and so on.
I saw Andy's Chris this evening. Andy had told her what had happened but got her to promise not to tell!
I've yet to see Gregg's Chris but I can expect a fair amount of ragging when I do.
And it's all because of quantum entanglement and my huge brain.