Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the week of March 4th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: spooky action at a distance, quantum entanglement, nano radios and more from the March issue of Scientific American magazine. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. John Rennie is the editor in chief of Scientific American. We sat down in the magazine's library to talk about the latest issue.
Steve: Well, John.
Rennie: Yes, Steve.
Steve: You've really done it this time. I would like to start with a couple of readings from our cover article. On the cover, of course, we have "Was Einstein Wrong?" with an illustration of Albert that makes him look like he is in desperate need of some medication and the article itself is called a "Quantum Threat to Special Relativity".
Steve: Before I get your comments again, I have two short readings from the article. One from this sidebar called Many Worlds".
Rennie: All right.
Steve: "The many worlds interpretation [asserts] that quantum measurement in effect split the universe into branches where all the different outcomes occur in parallel, so your universe can be local if copies of you inhabit myriad unseen parallel universes. This approach however is beset by many difficult problems."
Rennie: It's not [a] how to Steve.
Steve: I should say not. I just also want to read one of the short passages and then make a comment; afterwards I will allow you to roam free over the planes of quantum mechanics.
Rennie: Oh good! Because I really admire your interview technique so far.
Steve: Thank you. Alright, so we were talking about the physicist Bell and here's the sentence: "From Bell's work it emerged that Bohr was wrong"—we're talking about Niels Bohr—"from Bell's work it emerged that Bohr was wrong that nothing was wrong with his understanding of quantum mechanics and that Einstein was wrong about what was wrong with Bohr's understanding."
Rennie: And your point is Steve?
Steve: This is a challenging article.
Rennie: Well, sure, sure.
Steve: And you know what it made me think of—and then we'll explain what's actually in the article—[it made me] think of that scene in the Superman movie, the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, where he is flying around holding Margot Kidder, right, and he says, "Don't worry I've got you." And she says, "You've got me? Who's got you?"
Rennie: Steve, Steve the thing you're losing track of here is that the article in question, "A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity" is written by David Z Albert and Rivka Galchen—and David Z Albert happens to be one of the leading physicist-philosophers of our time. So you're in very good hands. I am not saying Superman's good hands, Steve, I am not going that far, but very good hands when it comes to understanding the complexities of how new work or experimental work being done on quantum mechanics has been causing more and more problems for Einstein's theory of special relativity and, in effect, showing why it is that the quite old conflict between special relativity and some of the consequences of quantum theory, that it seems as though Einstein was wrong. Not [grossly] wrong, [he's] Albert Einstein for heaven sakes, but significantly wrong with respect to a problem, what's called nonlocality.
Steve: Yeah, let me say, I in no way meant to impugn the article or the author. It's a terrific article.
Steve: What I had such difficulty with, which—I shouldn't have any, [there's no reason] for me to be ashamed, because physicists have had difficulty with these things for many decades now, are the concepts laid out in the article. The universe is a very strange place.
Rennie: Yes, it is indeed and when you are dealing with quantum mechanics and special relativity, you are in very good company with both physicists and lay people who have difficulty understanding some of the concepts; but yes, this article may be challenging in a lot of ways but very fulfilling if you spend the time, Steve.
Steve: Now the interesting thing is that what Einstein was wrong about was not necessarily what physicists thought he might have been wrong about. It's something else that he was wrong about.
Rennie: I mean there has been this conflict going back early into the time when the history of quantum mechanics, that it didn't sit well with the more classical physics universe that Einstein was working with when he was developing his relativity theories. People may have had [a] hard time thinking of the relativity theory a sort of classical physics, but in a lot of ways it really is.
Steve: And let me talk about that in terms of the Superman thing I brought up. He is touching her. That's how he is able to transfer forces to her, and that's [what] we are used to—if I want to make contact with you, I can either touch you on the arm or I can talk and that's going to send vibrations through the air that are going to vibrate your eardrum and your ear bones; or I can pick up a telephone which does something else and I can do that, you know, I can talk to people in outer space with the same technology, the same idea that something is touching something is touching something [ad infinitum] or things are vibrating and eventually the action has some kind of an effect at a distance, and that's called locality.
Steve: And what we are talking about is that it turns out, it looks like the universe is nonlocal where there are things that are way far apart from each other that somehow are in contact with each other in terms of intrinsic properties.
Rennie: Right, right. I mean more specifically what you're getting at with that is the fact that you can have certain particles, for example, or larger objects can in principle, they can be, entangled with one another, is what the physicists would say. That is their quantum states and certain of their properties are bound up together and that they bear a certain distinct relationship to one another and what is interesting is that because they are entangled that relationship remains, no matter how far apart those two different objects may be. So [it's] as though the two particles if one is spinning up and the other one always spinning down and even if their relative spins always will have that same sort of balance to one another, no matter where they are in the universe. Now the idea that Einstein held out for was that, well the fact that it seemed as though you could have this sort of weird nonlocality, as though things that were extremely far apart, that they might somehow still be in contact with one another that seemed like a kind of spooky action at a distance, and he didn't like that. And in particular that was really at odds with special relativity which said you certainly couldn't have instantaneous spooky action at a distance, because you couldn't have any sort of information passing instantaneously; it would be bound at least by the speed of light. So he didn't care for that. So what Einstein was arguing was that to the extent in quantum theory seemed to say that's what was happening, it meant the quantum theory was incomplete; it was missing something. There was some other kind of factor determining why those two entangled particles might actually still relate to one another even if we couldn't see it. It's, I guess, we can consider of think if it is daytime in New York, it is nighttime in Sydney, Australia. There's a reason for that. It's because they happen to be on opposite sides of the earth. The question was, "Is there some sort of underlying connection that was there that would help to resolve this problem in some sort of classical terms?" And this is something that physicists have been arguing about for a very, very long time, but what the authors of this article point out is that the work by John Bell, but also some more recent experimental work, seems to indicate that in fact there really is a deep nonlocality to the universe; that there really is someway in which there is not some sort of missing x-factor that if we just knew what it was that would explain everything; that we would see the dominos connecting, those invisible tiny dominos connecting those different particles and set up the effect of going one to the other. So this experimental work seems to suggest we really do have this deep nonlocality to the universe, which means that the universe is a much weirder place than Einstein would have liked, and it's something with a lot of different sorts of profound implications for understanding the universe at a quantum level.
Steve: The article uses the word "spooky" twice without specifically making reference to that famous Einstein phrase "spooky action at a distance" ...
Steve: ...and that's what they're talking about. So the thing that Einstein was wrong about was in his 1935 paper, criticizing or finding some kind of incompleteness in quantum mechanics; the thing that he was wrong about was his underlying assumption of locality.
Rennie: Right, right. The idea was that in effect locality, that had to be true; and since we are coming up with the result that seem to suggest that you didn't have locality that somehow something was missing from quantum theory. Niels Bohr who took the opposite side of that argument said, "No, no, the quantum theory is fine; your problem is that you're trying to make sense of the world in some sort of classical terms, and you can't do that by looking through the lens of quantum physics." Basically [he was] saying [to] Einstein, "You're [the] problem here, and you're trying to ask the wrong question." And now we are starting to get this answer that, in fact, well, they were sort of both wrong; that in fact Bohr was right that the quantum theory was still really there but it wasn't that you couldn't ask that question. It's that nonlocality actually [applies]. Even Bohr thought the world must actually have locality at some level, and maybe it looks like that's really not true.
Steve: Again, let me read that sentence again. "From Bell's work it emerged that Bohr was wrong that nothing was wrong with his understanding of quantum mechanics and that Einstein was wrong about what was wrong with Bohr's understanding."You know, it's pretty funny because these two guys were pretty smart guys.
Rennie: That's what I hear.
Steve: But apparently Bell was also kind of amazingly bright.
Rennie: John Bell, also very smart, yes.
Steve: So what do we do with this article? Where do we put it in our picture of the world and the universe?
Rennie: Well, that's a good question. I think you can certainly drop it into the big category of physics articles that illuminate the universe by telling us that it is indeed much more deeply complicated and counter intuitive than most of us would think; that when you start to look at the fringes of what we understand about physics and how the world works, you really get the sense that we are locked in[to] certain set of perceptions that do not necessarily apply; that our kind of common sense, everyday [intuitions] are not a very good guide to understanding how the universe can behave at certain scales or under certain conditions. What is interesting is that this still doesn't mean, by the way, that now you could necessarily build some kind of magical subspace radio that's going to help you be able to communicate faster than [the] speed of light or something like that. The proofs that were developed in the past showing that no, you can't take advantage of these entanglement factors to help you communicate faster at the speed of light, those all apparently still seem to apply. But it just shows that the underlying sense of how the universe works and how we are going to build theories that improve upon what we have now for understanding the physics, that's just more and more intriguing all the time.
Steve: Well, I am looking forward to reading this article [a] second time actually, because I think that this is an example of a piece that on a second and even a third reading will really start to permeate my deep dullness.
Rennie: Yes; good of you to go with dullness on that, sure.
Steve: Okay you think of another word then?
Rennie: I can't but your [salary review is] some ways off Steve.
Steve: All right, well as we have said this its a challenging piece but it's really worth going through, and there's a lot of really fascinating stuff in there. And of course, you know, the question "Was Einstein wrong?" is one that is addressed by many people working on fascinating theories in their basements around the country and the world—and we hear from a lot of them—but this is a profound look at that question as opposed to some of the things that may be some dabblers in physics have come up with.
Rennie: That's right.
Steve: Now we'll move from there to something that is really easy to get your mind around: a tiny, tiny radio.
Rennie: Yes a tiny, tiny radio, in fact the tinniest radio in the universe at this point; a nano radio, if you will.
Steve: Made truly nano, we are not just using that word.
Rennie: No, exactly right. This is a radio that was constructed from a single carbon nanotube—[actually] a sort of multilayered carbon nanotube—but a single carbon nano tube. But it is in actual radio. I mean, it's not just like a little radio device but an actual radio that could tune in to a radio broadcast and could then communicate that information on to speakers and [that] you could then listen to.
Steve: Where do you get the tiny little plug [for] the speakers? But let me play for the audience a clip of the output of this tiny little radio.
(radio clip playing)
Steve: So there you have it and you can tune into the radio via our Web site. You just go to www.SciAm.com/nanoradio.
Rennie: Derek and the nano Dominos.
Steve: And we have this wonderful photo of a guy listening to apparently nothing because this radio is so small it is invisible.
Rennie: That's right, that's right. This is a radio
in which, I mean, the carbon nanotube is I think 500 billionths of a meter long. I mean, it's [the] size of a virus. And yet even though it is the size of the virus, it does all the four basic functions that you require to have of a radio. That is, it serves as an antenna, and it also serves as the tuner, it can then amplify that signal, and it can also serve as a demodulator, that is it separates out, sort of the music signal from the underlying carrier wave. So it's amazing, and it opens up a number of intriguing technological possibilities for real nanoscale devices in the future.
Steve: And it can be inserted by the government...
Rennie: You're taking us back to the people who can't act us with their interesting theories once again.
Steve: I was in fact. So there's an interesting connection between two of the articles in the magazine. I don't know if you are aware of it, I just happened to notice it. Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger has mentioned in two completely different articles in this issue. One is in the spook[y] action at a distance article and the other is in the tuberculosis article. He is listed as a person who suffered from tuberculosis.
Steve: So why don't we talk about that TB article. We forget sometimes in the First World about TB. It crops up in big cities occasionally and it gets back on the radar, but out there in the world at large, TB is still a huge problem.
Rennie: Right. Tuberculosis is still one of the great plagues on all of mankind. It's actually been probably afflicting human beings and their close kin for [a] half million years. It is an extremely old sort of infection, and sadly it's one that is has not gone away, even though it's not much of a factor in our lives here in most of the industrialized world today, it's still a major, major factor in a lots of parts of developing world and, of course, it still hasn't even disappeared from places like here in the United States. In fact a lot of people would be rather shocked to see the level of tuberculosis incidence and [that] does still exist in the United States, including what is most worrisome to a lot of health authorities, which are some extremely nasty multidrug-resistant forms of tuberculosis that really we need to find some better ways of being able to contain.
Steve: Yeah we saw that here in New York city only about 10 to 12 years ago, there was another kind of spike in tuberculosis of the multidrug resistant variety and that was brought under control with very, very rigorous efforts by the public health people to actually go and watch people take their medications. And just recently we had the discussion of tuberculosis in Siberia where it's an awful problem. So what are the couple of a new tactics that are discussed in the piece?
Rennie: Well essentially a lot of the, what's being done these days is that we are starting to exploit more and more of our understanding about the tuberculosis microorganism in more detail and how is it that it interacts with its human host. The more we know about that, the more avenues will open up the ways that might be able to intervene at different levels in being able to stop the infection and be able to limit the extent to which it can be passed on. So fortunately, there are some sorts of new pharmaceuticals in development, but this all takes a lot of time. And you mentioned actually, unfortunately, the part of what has made the modern scourge of TB so bad is that we have unwittingly contributed to it. The rise of the multidrug-resistant TB—that is strains of TB that resist all of the best antibiotics against it—that's the result of our having done a bad job in using those antibiotics in the past. We had far too many people who may be for understandable reasons did not complete their antibiotic treatment. They did not take all the drugs they should have for as long as they should have and their bodies then became incubators for different type[s] of resistant TB.
Steve: And then you put those people together with other people just like them in closed quarters in shelters, for example, and you're actually creating the conditions for the generation, evolutionarily, of these super bugs.
Rennie: Right, that's right. And so this is in some ways the gravity of the modern TB threat is one that that we humans are directly responsible for, and so we really need to find some ways of being able to address that more effectively.
Steve: We've got some other fun stuff, saving new brain cells, it turns out that when you challenge your brain, you do a really good job of making sure that the brain cells that are forming to deal with that information also stick around longer.
Rennie: Yeah, this is an interesting point. I mean, it is as I think everybody in this audience knows the old dogma used to be that adult humans, like all adult mammals, we didn't generate new brain cells. What has become very clear over the past couple of decades is that, in fact, there is considerably more generation of new neurons even in
the adult brains than had it once believed. It has always been a little curious, little mysterious about exactly what those were doing. Given that lot of those brain cells seemed to form down in the area of the hippocampus, which is involved with the memory and with learning, it was an easy jump to naturally assume that they must be involved with that in some way. And now what this article here in the April issue reviews is what we have began to learn about a little bit of what those are doing and the circumstances that allow these new brain cells to come along to survive. Because that's part of what's interesting. Our brains are keeping creating these new brain cells all the time, these new neurons are forming, and they'll very frequently die, shortly thereafter that. It seems kind of wasteful. What appears to be the case is that when people are involved in what they refer to as effortful learning or certain kinds of learning tasks, that seems to encourage those neurons of a certain age to hang around. If the learning challenge is coming along too soon they haven't matured enough to benefit; [if] it comes along too late, it doesn't seem to make a difference. But there seems to be a certain sweet spot of time that if these new neurons get just old enough so that they can start to wire themselves in with the rest of the network of brain cells that are present, that they can then get caught up in some pattern of activation that encourages them to survive. What's also that is curious though is the question of what exactly are they doing? Because learning is a very fast process, and it's pretty clear that just growing new brain cells is much too slow to be directly involved in helping you establish new memories. So in some way it seems like this retention of these new neurons helps you by increasing your ability to lay down new memories. It's like it increases your capacity to add new memories and to learn new things, even though the neurons that are start surviving are not necessarily bound up with that process of establishing that those memories are inside your head. So little unclear how all of that is going on, but it is certainly one more piece of evidence that suggest that for people who do as they are getting older—[and] we all start to wonder a little bit about to how we can try to keep our brains fit or naturally people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and certain other kinds of mental problems—that certain kinds of challenges may be very helpful helping them maintain the best possible mental nimbleness, if you will.
Steve: I suggest that to really encourage your brain to be nimble, just keep reading that article on the quantum threat to special relativity, that'll just light up your brain and make new cells and keep them young and keep them fast.
Rennie: Really all of the rest of the April issue of the Scientific American; Steve, why stop there?
Steve: When it comes out; actually this is the March issue.
Rennie: Okay let's do that then.
Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Water treatment plants are using tiny air bubbles to clean water.
Story number 2: In 1989, a 747 with a couple of hundred people on board lost power in all four engines when it ran in to a cloud of ash that had just been spewed out by a volcano in Alaska.
Story number 3: It's healthier for a teenager to be heavy than to be [a] heavy smoker.
And story number 4: Sword swallowers help develop the medical procedure known as endoscopy.
Story number 4 is true. In the 19th century, sword swallowers were enlisted to test the feasibility of shoving a long tube down the throat in the procedure now called endoscopy. For more, check out the February 27th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.
And story number 1 is true. So-called micro-bubbles are being used in water treatment. Impurities stick to the bubbles which float at the surface where a skimmer takes case of the rest. For more on modern water treatments see our Web feature "Want Clean Water? Turn on the lights."
And story 2 is true. A 747 plummeted thousands of feet in 1989 after running into an ash cloud; [t]hen the pilots regained control. You see this is why monitoring volcanoes is a good thing, although Alaska alone has 31 active volcanoes.
All of which means that story [number] 3 about obese teens being better off than teens who smoke a lot is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS because a new study finds that obese teens and teens who are heavy smokers face the same risk [of] early death. The research appears in the British Medical Journal. 45,000 men were followed from their teens to the mid-50s. Men who smoked at least 10 cigarettes a day in their teens had the same risk of early death as obese men defined by a body mass index of over 30. The death risk of both groups was twice that of men of normal weight and obese smokers had five times more risk.
Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out http://www.SciAm.com for the latest science news, blogs, videos and all of our podcasts. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie talks about the contents of the March issue of the magazine, including articles on quantum entanglement, nano radios, fresh brain cells and more. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news