Dear Old Albert
“Einstein was wrong! Light is not the fastest thing in the universe—information is. And everything is information.”
The audience of Wheeler Auditorium at UC Berkeley held its breath at the first words of the lecture delivered by Dr. Henry H. Bowman, professor of particle physics. Students and colleagues knew that he had a flare for the dramatic and that his research had been shrouded in secrecy for several years, but his opening statement seemed to be more than a little pretentious.
In his late sixties, Bowman was a man of average height with gray hair parted on the side and spilling over his ears and shirt collar. He wore a suit coat that was fashionably out of style thanks to velvet elbow patches, and his deck shoes were cracked and worn. He wandered around the stage, hands in the pockets of his faded blue jeans, as he continued.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the professor proclaimed, stopping to face his audience with a grin. “He didn’t get everythingwrong, of course, and he was dead right on one very important issue thanks to his famous thought experiment called the EPR Paradox. By the way, that’s E for Einstein, P for Boris Podolsky, and R for Nathan Rosen—just to be clear, mind you, about who was also in on this revolutionary little brain game being played in the field of quantum mechanics in 1935. So, what did Einstein get right?”
Bowman paused, staring at his audience, most of them in shadow, almost as if expecting an answer. He laughed softly and rubbed his chin. “I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up.”
The professor resumed his aimless walking, and though he was mic’d up, he seemed to be talking as much to himself at times as to his listeners.
“Einstein desired certainty. In the lab, he wanted the properties of subatomic particles to be measured accurately each and every time. He wanted reality to be . . . well, real!”
Laughter rippled across the audience as a few heads turned to the people sitting next to them as if to say We knew this was going to be weird, and we’re not disappointed.
“You see, Einstein wasn’t buying into quantum mechanics, at least not the vision of it advanced by the Copenhagen interpretation cooked up by Neils Bohr or Werner Heisenberg. Quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle had the audacity to say that if you identified the location of an electron, you couldn’t simultaneously measure its momentum. If you measure its momentum, however, then poof—you couldn’t identify its location. Poor little guy. It was a wanderer, a hobo with no place to rest or call home.” Bowman paused for dramatic effect. “Bummer, right?” he said, raising his voice.
More laughter drifted over the audience.
“No, no, no, this was unacceptable to Albert, who said that God didn’t play dice with the universe. He wanted logic and what is known as scientific realism. To say that he was offended by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle regarding our aforementioned electron with an identity crisis would be an understatement. He wanted certainty, and don’t we all! When I was married, I always wanted to be able to predict what my wife was thinking, but my guesses were only accurate fifty percent of the time, like tossing a coin and calling heads or tails. Sooner or later you’re going to be right, but you’re still going to sleep on the couch fifty percent of the time. I’m divorced by the way.”
This time the laughter was much louder. Professor Bowman was winning his audience over by degrees without even having arrived at his main topic for the afternoon.
“Well, if you don’t buy what I’m selling today, I guess I can always do stand-up comedy. But pardon me. I digress. To point out an absurdity about quantum mechanics related to the Uncertainty Principle, Einstein conjured up his fabled EPR thought experiment. He imagined that two particles created at the same time and place are then moved far apart, even on opposite sides of the universe for the sake of argument. The pair is separated, like fighting spouses who have retreated to different rooms within their home. There is seemingly no communication, but there’s the rub! Quantum mechanics dictated that these particles had to be able to communicate instantaneously with each other. They had to be entangledat a quantum level. Long story short, quantum mechanics maintained that a measurement made of one particle’s spin would influence the other particle’s spin no matter the distance between them. And here’s the kicker, ladies and gentlemen. It would have to happen instantaneously.”
Bowman snapped his fingers and pounded his right fist into the palm of his left hand for emphasis, making a loud cracking sound. The professor, knowing that he had a captive audience hanging on his every word, walked to a table, drank from a glass of water, and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Sure is hot under these lights,” he muttered.
The auditorium was all silence and expectation.
“But there was a problem. Instantaneous communication? This was heresy for Einstein who felt that nothing could travel faster than light. For Einstein, instantaneous communication was as unlikely as our feuding spouses reconciling their differences from two rooms that are so far apart that each can’t hear the other’s voice.”
Bowman inhaled deeply and gazed down at his Top Siders as he paced. “Remember that nothing goes faster than the speed of light according to the theory of relativity. And yet somethinghad to be communicated between the theoretical particles if quantum mechanics was going to be upheld and eventually proven. Otherwise, God was playing dice with the universe, and the cosmos wouldn’t make much sense—at least not to Albert. Einstein concluded that there had to be variables hidden somewhere in these particles if the quantum world could be regarded as . . . complete, to use his own word. He just didn’t believe in instantaneous communication, so he copped out, dear friends, and claimed that what was happening to these particles was something he termed—” Bowman made the air-quote gesture with his hands. “Spooky action at a distance.”
Bowman suddenly stopped pacing, faced the audience—legs spread—and held out his arms, fingers splayed. “Boo! Spooky action!”
There was no laughter this time, for everyone in Wheeler Auditorium knew that the next shoe was going to drop any minute now.
Bowman resumed pacing the stage yet again and waved his right arm dismissively in the air.
“He didn’t bother to tell us what that spooky action was for one simple reason: he had no flippin’ idea. After all, quantum mechanics was violating his own theory of relativity, and maybe he didn’t really want an answer even though he spent a good portion of his life trying to find one—bupkis, nada, zilch.” Bowman cupped his hands around his mouth as if telling a secret. “He couldn’t figure out his own riddle any more than he could find marital bliss. He was a womanizer, in case you didn’t know.”
Einstein’s famous equation appeared on the elevated screen at the rear of the stage.
E = mc2
Bowman stood still as he faced the audience, arms folded after motioning to the equation on the screen behind him.
“You’re all familiar with Einstein’s famous equation no doubt. It shows that matter and energy are different forms of the same thing and are interchangeable. Now I’ll grant you that anything made of matter or energy can’t travel faster than light, which is the cosmic speed limit according to the theory of relativity. I’ll give that much to Albert. But what about something that contains no matter or energy? Something like data, like information? Why does it have to obey this speed limit? Well, yours truly has a few tricks up his sleeve,” the professor announced, running fingers through his long, unkempt hair, “and at the risk of sounding immodest, information issomething that can travel faster than the speed of light, and not just random information either. Real data canbe transmitted instantaneously, and I have created something that can prove it.”
A collective gasp escaped the throats of the crowd.
“It’s called the . . . well, why don’t I just show it to you now, huh? Would you like to see it?”
Bowman received a round of loud applause and a standing ovation before he could utter another word and show the world his creation, something that would profoundly alter the course of human history.