what entanglement means for philosophy

June 8, 2009

A deptiction of entanglement (credit: Nature Physics cover, Volume 2, No 10)

A depiction of entanglement (credit: Nature Physics cover, Volume 2, No 10)

The most recent issue of Nature reports a new study involving entanglement. For those not familiar with or a bit hazy on entanglement, here’s my best description:

The basic idea is that we can entangle two quantum particles, like electrons, such that one or more of their properties are inextricably related. This means that if I have two entangled electrons, and I measure the spin (think of it like planetary rotation on its axis) of one electron, the spin of the other electron necessarily becomes the other direction. This property means that if I measure the spin one electron here on earth to be “up,” immediately (not sure if it’s truly instantaneous or at the speed of light–asking a particle physics Ph.D on this, who’s going to get back to me) an entangled electron on Mars would have a spin of “down”.

What’s interesting about this new research is that it involves the mechanical oscillation of ions (beryllium). Previous experiments with entanglement have only been done with electrons and particles of that size (and ions, or atoms, are tens of thousands of times more massive than electrons), and none have dealt with a mechanical property like moving back and forth.

But what’s really interesting about this whole phenomenon is that it’s basically like a new way of communicating without radio waves or any other type of electromagnetic radiation. I can imagine cool Sci-Fi scenarios in which we have entangled communication devices that allow us to talk efficiently with people and their devices in other galaxies (although, again, the whole instantaneous or speed of light question comes back into play over large distances).

The process of entanglement also raises much more profound metaphysical questions. Most of us (I believe) think of objects–an apple, my computer, a person–as distinctly different things, all objects in the world, yes, but distinct objects nonetheless. An idea called monism, holds that (very simplistically) everything is really part of one thing. Just like individual waves in the ocean are really just wrinkles in one thing, the apple, computer, and person are wrinkles of a large thing, that contains every seemingly (but not really) individual thing in the universe.

Now, I recognize that this idea seems kind of crazy, but the existence of entanglement makes it seem much less crazy. If things in our universe are really completely distinct, why should they be able to influence each other millions of miles away form each other? Keep in mind that there’s no type of electromagnetic radiation or other normal “communication” between the two particles. If seemingly separate things are actually little wrinkles of one thing, this relationship between entangled particles makes much more sense.

Monism is still a bit too far out there for me to accept it at the moment, but more evidence of increasingly complex entanglement really makes me consider monism seriously as a way of understanding our universe.

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