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d'Espagnat takes big prize for work on quantum mechanics

Earlier this week, the Templeton Foundation announced the 2009 winner of its $1.4 million Templeton Prize, French physicist and philosopher Bernard d’Espagnat. He is best known for his work to understand and test one of the strangest predictions of the theory of quantum mechanics: that particles are uncannily good players of The Newlywed Game. Pairs of them can give exactly the same responses to measurements conducted on them at the same time in isolated booths.

In the 1960s, physicist John Stewart Bell derived a set of mathematical inequalities that the responses would obey if the particles had some kind of a built-in cheat sheet. But d’Espagnat, Alain Aspect, and other experimenters found that particles violate these inequalities. Somehow the particles retain an intimate connection that transcends space. Physicists, even the most romantically inclined among them, have yet to fathom it.

“For those interested in the fundamental structure of the physical world, the experimental verification of Bell’s inequality constitutes the most significant event of the last half-century,” Tim Maudlin, a philosopher of physics at Rutgers University, has written.

For me, the award also brings back fond memories of one of Scientific American’s most classic articles, d’Espagnat’s “The Quantum Theory and Reality,” in our November 1979 issue, which provides a step-by-step explanation of Bell’s inequalities and goes into the subtleties that my above summary glosses over. It’s not the easiest article to read, but it rewards the effort, and it inspired a streamlined explanation by David Mermin in the April 1985 issue of Physics Today, which I, in turn, further simplified for my own book.

This month’s cover story, by Columbia University philosopher David Albert and writer Rivka Galchen, delves more into the implications, many of which are not well known even by most physicists. As it happens, my colleague Ivan Oransky and I saw Galchen Monday night at the award ceremony for the Young Lions Fiction Award, for which her Pynchonesque novel Atmospheric Disturbances was a finalist. Congratulations, Rivka!

Photo of Bernard d’Espagnat, courtesy Templeton Foundation

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