Bell’s Theorem: A Nobel Prize For Metaphysics

by Jochen Szangolies

Bells Theorem Crescent in Belfast, John Bell’s birth town.

There has been no shortage of articles on this year’s physics Nobel, which, just in case you’ve been living under a rock, was awarded to Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science”. Why, then, add more to the pile?

A justification is given be John Bell himself in his 1966 review article On the Problem of Hidden Variables in Quantum Mechanics: “[l]ike all authors of noncommissioned reviews [the writer] thinks that he can restate the position with such clarity and simplicity that all previous discussions will be eclipsed”. While I like to think that I’m generally more modest in my ambitions than Bell semi-seriously positions himself here, I feel that there is a lacuna in most of the recent coverage that ought to be addressed. That omission is that while there is much talk about what the prize-winning research implies—from the possibility of groundbreaking new quantum technologies to the refutation of dearly held assumptions about physical reality—there is considerably less talk about what it, and Bell’s theorem specifically, actually is, and why it has had enough impact beyond the scientific world to warrant the unique (to the best of my knowledge) distinction of having a street named after it.

In part, this is certainly owed to the constraints of writing for an audience with a diverse background, and the fear of alienating one’s readers by delving too deeply into what might seem like overly technical matters. Luckily (or not), I have no such scruples. However, I—perhaps foolishly—believe that there is a way to get the essential content of Bell’s theorem across without breaking out its full machinery. Indeed, the bare statement of his result is quite simple. At its core, what Bell did was to derive an inequality—a bound on the magnitude of a certain quantity—such that, when it holds, we can write down a joint probability distribution for the possible values of the inputs of the inequality, where these ‘inputs’ are given by measurement results.

Now let’s unpack what this means. Read more »

Monday, August 19, 2019

I Have a Concussion and Can’t Write 2,000 New Words, So Here’s an Old, Unpublished Essay About How Ridiculous it is that Bob Dylan Won a Nobel

by Akim Reinhardt

clip artSmacked my head on the pavement while jogging across campus in the rain. Had my hands on my stomach, holding documents in place underneath my shirt to keep them dry. So when my foot went out after skipping over a puddle, I couldn’t get my front paws down in time to brace my fall as I corkscrewed through the air, landing on my hip and shoulder, and whiplashing my head downward.  Consequently I don’t have the brain power to crank out 2,000 fresh words.  So here’s a dated piece about Baby Boomer navel gazing and ressentiment.

Perhaps I should just skip a week instead of peddling an old, cranky number that previously had not found the light of day. That would probably be the prudent, and certainly reasonable course. But vanity urges me onward. I have a bit of a streak running here at 3QD and don’t want to break it just cause I cracked my noggin. Alas, for better or worse then, I move forward by looking backwards.
Ugh. Bob Dylan.

Even though we’re well into the 21st century and half the Baby Boomers are collecting Social Security, they’re still determined to thumb their noses at their parents. Even the Swedish ones, apparently. So Bob Dylan gets a Nobel Prize in Literature.

I told you, daaaaaaaaad! My music is art toooo! Seeee?

You know what? You’re dad’s dead. Grow up. Find a new battle to fight. Go argue with your grandkids or something.

Bob Dylan. Jesus.

The guy plagiarized substantial portions of the only prose book he ever wrote, his 2005 memoir. You’d think that right there would disqualify a writer from winning the world’s most prestigious lifetime literary award. But this is the Age of Truthiness, so I guess all bets are off. Read more »

Monday, October 1, 2018

On Nobel Prizes, diversity and tool-driven scientific revolutions

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The Nobel Prizes in science will be announced this week. For more than a century the prizes have recognized high achievement in physics, chemistry and medicine. Some scientists crave the prizes so much that they get obsessed with them. A prominent, world-famous chemist once had lunch with my graduate school advisor. After a few minutes he went off on a tirade against the Nobel committee, cursing them for not giving him the prize. He never got it, and he never got over it. The Nobel can bring fame and recognition, but it can also make the lives of those who live for them miserable.

A human prize created by a human committee based on the will of a human who established it to atone for a better method of killing people should not cause people such agony. And yet, in many ways, the prizes reflect all that is good and bad about human nature. The physicist Phillip Lenard later turned out to be a Nazi who denounced Einstein and his relativity. The celebrated Werner Heisenberg wasn’t a Nazi, but he controversially participated in work toward an atomic weapon in Germany during the war. Fritz Haber made an even more damning pact with the devil. Haber and his collaborator Carl Bosch kept alive, by one measure, one third of the world’s population by inventing a process to manufacture ammonia for fertilizers from nitrogen in the air. Haber won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918, right after he had spent the First World War inventing chemical weapons that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. António Moniz who won the prize in medicine in 1949 pioneered the highly controversial procedure of lobotomy which, even though it seemed like a good idea then, incapacitated thousands. And William Shockley who co-invented the transistor and inaugurated Silicon Valley later became infamous for promoting racist theories of intelligence. The moral landscape of Nobelists even in science is ambiguous, so one can imagine how much worse it would be and in fact is in areas like peace and economics. Read more »