Hoisting by Einstein’s Petard

While often cited as an authority in particle physics and cosmology, Einstein didn’t win the Nobel Prize for his work on relativity. That was considered too controversial at the time. Rather, he was awarded the prize for two papers that forced physicists to shift their understanding of waves.

As I’ve pointed out before, the mathematics of waves is seductive. By assuming that a phenomenon is uniformly smooth at any magnification, we are allowed the use of powerful mathematical tools such as differential equations and Fourier analysis. But it comes with a big assumption: that the things described have no structure inside of them.

Einstein’s two papers undermined that assumption. One paper forced the conclusion that light waves were composed of particles called “photons.” The second forced a recognition that water waves were composed of molecules.

Then he spent the rest of his life pursuing a grand theory of physics that assumed that space was uniformly smooth. Go figure, and take note: he failed in his quest.

So have all the others that followed in his footsteps.

In essence, all that I am asking in my New Physics page is that we imagine that space has structure. I’m hoisting Einstein on his own petard.

Gravity Waves ‘Goodbye’ to Einstein

I was out at the Skeptics Society science talk on Sunday. The speaker was Stephon Alexander, a theoretical astrophysicist at Brown University, who talked about the relationship between string theory and music. Dr. Alexander also plays the tenor sax, and has released his first jazz album. His new book, The Jazz of Physics, describes the relationship between his two passions.

The format was a discussion with Michael Shermer, the head of the Skeptics Society. Michael rounded out the conversation with the “big questions.” Regarding the future of physics, Alexander predicted that we would have a theory that reconciled gravity and quantum mechanics in the next fifty years. As for the ultimate origin of the universe, Alexander observed that the possibility of creating carbon, which is the basis for life on earth, is tightly coupled to the relative strengths of two fundamental forces: the first binds quarks together to form a proton, and the second binds electrons to protons to form hydrogen atoms. Even a 10% change in strengths would prevent the formation of carbon in stars. This is the kind of “fine-tuning” often exclaimed by theists, but Alexander allowed Shermer to lead the conversation into a discussion of the multiverse hypothesis.

As you might imagine, I ended up having to apologize to Dr. Alexander for the question that I raised.

The question was motivated by the history of physics, which has again and again used the equations of oscillating waves to describe complex phenomena. This is the technology of Fourier analysis, and its power lies in fact that waves can be composed to produce very complex patterns. (Just consider the surface of a swimming pool, for example.) But Fourier analysis has its weaknesses, and I am particularly concerned regarding two of them.

The lesser of the weaknesses is that close to the source of a wave, other mathematical methods may give a more concise description of the disturbance. For example, the surface of a beaten drum deforms with Bessel waves. This is also how the air moves in the vicinity of the drum. It is only far from the source that the pressure waves that we hear as sound are described efficiently by Fourier notation. So when applied inappropriately, Fourier analysis may make it difficult to understand the things that create the waves.

The second weakness is that the media in which waves propagate are not smooth – they are actually composed of particles. We have seen this again and again in physics. Sound waves can be described as waves, but until we accept that gases are composed of little atoms there are certain effects that we can’t explain – such as why our voice squeaks after we inhale the helium from a balloon. Considering water waves, Einstein himself was awarded the Nobel prize in part for explaining the motion of small impurities in water with the insight that the water was composed of atoms that bashed the impurities around, causing them to jitter and wander rather than flowing smoothly from place to place. More abstractly, James Clerk Maxwell predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves by combining the equations that describe the generation of electric and magnetic fields. Einstein’s Nobel award also recognized his explanation of the photoelectric effect with the idea that electromagnetic waves were actually composed of particles called photons.

Considering this history, it seems natural to wonder whether the theories that Alexander describes in his book – theories that hold that the cosmos is composed of quantum-mechanical waves – are going to be replaced by theories that posit structures inside those waves. In response to the question, he offered that there had been some ideas proposed of that type, but they hadn’t been developed because they were “unfashionable.”

I had the sense that I rained a little on Dr. Alexander’s parade, which upset me. There were a number of young Hispanic high-school students in attendance, and he made a powerful representation to them that anyone can aspire to be a scientist – the most important steps were to try, to keep your eye out for mentors, and to recognize whether it was truly your passion. That is an important message, and in casting doubt on his picture, I may have undermined the inspiration that he offered.

But I just couldn’t help myself. It was those questions asked by Shermer, to which I believe I have been granted such powerful answers. This I was able to communicate to Stephon when I stopped to have my book signed. During his talk, he enthusiastically related the vision that the universe of waves sings to itself, a vision not dissimilar to his experience of jazz improvisation.

While the specifics are different, the passion is common to us both. I offered to him that, not being an academic, I don’t often have the opportunity to share my ideas, and because I have been led by them into a view of the universe that contains such wholeness and beauty, I tend to become a little bit passionate when conveying them. However, I do intend them as gifts, and hope that they help people to escape fear that has no foundation.

And maybe, just maybe, one of those young people will be inspired by the analogy I offered. We know that the gravitational waves exist – they were recently detected by the LIGO collaboration. And we know what they propagate in: dark energy. It only takes the courage to break from what Alexander called “fashion” to cast down Einstein and offer a new view of the universe – a view that I am fairly certain explains spirituality, and makes evident the existence of God.

And, given Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics, famously stated as “God does not play dice with the universe,” I believe that the great man himself might forgive me the ambition to see him overthrown.

Quantum Entanglement

John Markoff at the New York Times has been heralding an experiment at Delft as disproving Einstein’s view of the universe. While I have my own issues with Einstein, I am not as impressed with the Delft demonstration as Markoff and others appear to be.

The quantum world is incredibly mysterious to us – we cannot observe its inner workings directly, but only observe its side-effects. This means that we can’t make statements about the behavior of any one system of particles, but only about many systems in aggregate.

Let me give a classical example. When we toss a coin in the air, we know that there is a fifty percent chance that it will land “heads up.” If we could measure the coin’s position and rate of spinning and also knew precisely the properties of the floor that it would land on, as it was in flight we could calculate precisely which way it would land. But we can’t do that, so we believe that there is an element of “chance” in the outcome. In the terminology of quantum mechanics, we might say that the coin in flight is in a “quantum” state: 50% heads up and 50% heads down.

Now let’s say that we put two people in a room and asked them to toss a coin. Since we can’t observe the thoughts in their mind, we might consider them to be in an “entangled” state. We know that if we ask one the answer, we’ll receive the same answer from the other We then separate them by miles and ask the first one what the result of the toss was. If she says “heads,” we know instantaneously that the second person will also say “heads.” So we might say that the state of the pair has “collapsed” to “heads” instantaneously, and we know what answer will be given by the second person.

But the information didn’t travel instantaneously from one to the other. The two people from the room knew all along what the answer was.

If this is actually the nature of quantum entanglement of very small particles such as electrons (the subject of the experiment in Delft), why do scientists become so confused about the process of information transfer?

That chance in coin tossing actually reflects the randomness of the tossing process: the position of the coin on our thumb, the effort of our muscles, the condition of the floor: only with great practice could we ensure that all of these were identical on each toss. If that investment in discipline were made, we could actually control the outcome of the toss, achieving heads 100% of the time.

Now let’s say that, unbeknownst to us, the coin tossers are actually trained in this skill. How would we find out? We couldn’t find out from one experiment. Even after a second experiment, there’s still a one-in-four chance that a random toss would achieve “heads” in both cases. No, we’d have to run many experiments, and decide how improbable the outcome would have to be before we accepted that something was wrong with our theory of coin tossing.

In other words, the confusion comes in because the philosophy of quantum mechanics confuses the problem of proving the correctness of the theory with the actual behavior of the particles that produce any specific outcome. In our coin-tossing case, the quantum theory holds that we’ll get heads 50% of the time. But to prove that, we have to do many, many experiments.

Let’s extend this to the problem of Schroedinger’s cat: a cat is in a box with a vial of poison gas and a radioactive isotope. When the isotope decays (at some random time), a detector triggers a hammer to smash the vial. In the “accepted” philosophy of quantum mechanics, the state of the isotope evolves over time, being partially decayed. This means that the state of the cat is also partially dead. When we open the box, its “wave function” collapses to one state or the other.

We can clarify this confusion with a thought experiment: In our coin tossing example, let’s say that we put coins in boxes and had children run around the room to shake them up, randomizing their state. In quantum mechanical terms, we would say that the state of any one coin was “50% heads.” When we look in a box, the state of that coin is determined: it’s wave function collapses to either heads or tails. It is only by observing all of the coins, however, that we can determine whether the children actually were successful in randomizing the state of the coins.

By analogy with this, we can only prove Schrodinger’s theorem about the “deadness” of cats by performing many experiments. At any instant, however, each cat in its box is either alive or dead. It is unfortunate that we’d have to kill very many of them to determine whether the theory of radioactive decay was correct.

So I side with Einstein: I don’t see any mysterious “action at a distance” in the experiment at Delft, and I certainly don’t see it as proof that information can travel faster than the speed of light.

My own proposition is very different: it is that the dark energy that permeates space and constrains the speed of light can have holes opened in it by the action of our spirit. Once it is removed, the barriers of time and distance fall. When such bonds are created through fear, the subject of the fear seeks to escape them, and the strength of the bond dissipates. When the bonds are created in love, the entanglement persists by mutual consent, and grows inexorably in strength and power, eventually sweeping all else before it.

What kind of confirmation could the physicists at Delft provide of this? I’m not certain, but it would be an experiment in which the electrons were separated, and a manipulation of one was reflected in the other. In our coin-toss experiment, it would be if the two people in the room were separated before the coin toss, and the second knew instantly what the result was of the toss performed by the other. From the video they made, I don’t think that’s what is happening at Delft.

This post in memoriam of Professor Eugene Commins who taught my upper-division course in Quantum Mechanics at UC Berkeley in 1981, and who benefited during his doctoral studies at Princeton from conversations with Einstein.

Einstein is So 20th Century

In the two centuries between Newton and Einstein, arguably the greatest physicist of the 19th century was the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell made fundamental contributions to thermodynamics, the study of how gases, liquids and solids change when ambient conditions (such as temperature and pressure) change, and how to convert heat to work. One of the results was an understanding of the propagation of sound waves through the air. But Maxwell also applied the new mathematics of differential calculus to create a unified theory of electricity and magnetism. These are the famous “Maxwell’s Equations” that predict the existence of electromagnetic waves, which we see as “light”.

Maxwell saw the relationship between electromagnetic waves and water and sound waves. Being steeped in a mechanical analysis of the world, he was unsatisfied with his abstract mathematical theory, and invested time in building a mechanical model of the “aluminiferous ether” – the medium in which light waves traveled. Having spent years studying his equations and their predictions, I am fascinated by claims of his success. It’s a magical world in which the linear motion of charges creates rotary magnetic effects. My understanding is that the model was not simple, but contained complex systems of interlocking gears.

Now Maxwell’s work was not merely a curiosity – it was the basis for the design of communication networks that broke down distances with the enormous speed of light. More than anything else, this has brought us into each other’s lives and helped to create the sense that we are one human family. (The social and psychological reaction to that reality is complex, and we’re still growing into our responsibilities as neighbors. In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin offers a hopeful analysis of the transition.)

So the world of scientific inquiry hung on Maxwell’s words, and in America, two of them, Michelson and Morley, designed an experiment to detect the presence of the ether. If the ether filled all of space, the Earth must be moving through it. Therefore the speed of light should change depending upon the motion of the observer through it. The analogy was with water waves: an observer moving along with a water wave doesn’t experience its disturbance – while one moving against it feels its disturbance enhanced. This is an example of Newton’s laws concerning the change of reference frames.

Since the Earth rotates around the sun, light emitted from the Earth in a specific direction relative to the sun should have a different speed at different times of the year. To test this hypothesis, Michelson and Morley built a sensitive instrument that compared the speed of light travelling in two perpendicular directions. As the Earth varied its motion through the ether, the pattern of dark and light on a screen was expected to shift slowly. Strangely, the result was negative: the image did not change.

The conclusion was that there was no ether. This was a real crisis, because Maxwell’s Equations don’t behave very well when trying to predict the relationship between observations made by people moving at different speeds. To understand how really terrible this is, consider: in Maxwell’s theory, charges moving through empty space creates a rotary magnetic field. But what if the observer is moving along with the charge? The charge no longer appears to move, so the magnetic field disappears. How can that be possible?

This was the challenge taken up by the Dutch physicist Henrik Lorenz. He analyzed the mechanical properties of rulers and clocks, which are of course held together by electromagnetic forces, and discovered a magical world in which rulers change length and clocks speed up and slow down when the speed of the observer changes.

This was the context in which Einstein introduced his theory of Special Relativity. He did not really add to the results of Lorenz, but he simplified their derivation by proposing two simple principles: First, since the vacuum is empty, we have no way of determining whether we are moving or not. All motion is relative to an observer (thus the title: Special Theory of Relativity), and so no observer should have a preferred view of the universe. The second was that the speed of light is the same to every observer. Einstein’s mathematical elaboration of these principles unified our understanding of space and time, and matter and energy. Eventually, General Relativity extended his ideas to include accelerating observers, who can’t determine whether they are actually accelerating or rather standing on the surface of a planet.

Special and General Relativity were not the only great theories to evolve in the course of the 20th century. Quantum Mechanics (the world of the microscopic) and Particle Physics (describing the fundamental forces and how they affect the simplest forms of matter) were also developed, but ultimately Einstein’s principles permeated those theories as criteria for acceptance.

Then, in 1998, studies of light emitted from distant supernovae seemed to indicate that something is pushing galaxies apart from each other, working against the general tendency of gravity to pull them back together. The explanation for this is Dark Energy, a field that fills all of space. This field has gravitational effects, and its effects in distorting the images of distant galaxies have been observed. However, this field cannot be moving in all possible directions at all possible speeds. Therefore, it establishes a preferred reference frame, invalidating Einstein’s assumptions.

Working physicists resist this conclusion, because they have a means of accommodating these effects in their theories, which is to introduce additional mathematical terms. But science is not about fitting data – it is about explaining it. Einstein used his principles as an explanation to justify the mathematics of his theories. When those principles are disproven, the door opens to completely new methods for describing the universe. We can travel as far back as Maxwell in reconstructing our theories of physics. While for some that would seem to discard a lot of hard work done over the years between (and undermine funding for their research), for others it liberates the imagination (see Generative Orders as an illustration).

So, for example, why didn’t Michelson and Morley detect the ether? Maybe ether is more like air than water. Air is carried along with the Earth, and so the speed of sound doesn’t vary as the Earth moves about the sun. Maybe dark energy, which Maxwell knew as the ether, is also carried along with the Earth. Maybe, in fact, gravitation is caused by distortion in the Dark Energy field when it is bound to massive objects.