Feb 24, 2013

Spooky Action at a Distance

This image, from the newly revamped Jansky Very Large Array, is of Invisible W50 - a supernova  that exploded violently 20,000 years ago. It now contains a black hole, spans nearly 700 light years across and, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, resembles our very own benign and lumpen Florida Manatee.

Comparison, and contextualization more broadly, are our happy habit. "This" fits here, "that" fits there, "those" are similar - within a frame of reference, we are more comfortable. But this doesn't work so well in quantum physics; harder to name one thing after another thing if you can't pinpoint them in space or time.

Quantum entanglement suggests that we are all made of the same stuff, categorical brethren from one Big Bang when every atom in the universe was condensed into a singularity. From that point on, everything that exists has been quantumly entangled. Some scientists go as far as to say that all things in the universe are still touching, and the space between us is yet another illusion dredged up by our flawed perceptions. What is worse (or better), one subatomic particle can be entwinted with another that is thousands of miles away, but we cannot ever know their exact locations, or predict with certainty the outcome of any experiment involving them. All we can say of the world is what is probable.
Einstein helped usher in the quantum age, but he didn't believe it should be our fundamental science. He said, "Physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance."  

We see his point. Quantum science is downright unnerving - 
 seriously fantastic, outside-lands theory - but it doesn't help much on days when we just want to know definitively our category and kind. 

Here at Chabot we have many photos of astronauts, grinning out from the walls. They seem heroic - in particular those who flew and lost their lives on Challenger - but the photos bring up that tension again. On Earth, humans are elegant, carbon-based royalty. We slough off our pending absence from the planet by inhabiting our physical forms with gusto. In space, though, we look clunky, clearly out of our element. We cannot breathe, or speak; inside a ship we awkwardly drift, a biological self flexing a synthetic wing. 

Why are we out there? What if there is no 'out there' to be 'in'? 

OSLab-ers are suckers for sci fi, and though we're still in support of space exploration, we are pretty happy about the idea of taking a quantum view. Rather than needing to stamp a proud, cold footprint (or flag) on space to shout out about our separate selves, we'll consider that each and every one of of us just is space. We could settle in and get weirdly comfortable in that category.

Emily Dickinson, deft as always at prodding the human underbelly, called us out long ago:
"We see -- Comparatively ---
The Thing so towering high
We could not grasp its segment
This Morning's finer Verdict—
Makes scarcely worth the toil—
A furrow—Our Cordillera—
Our Apennine—a Knoll—..."

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