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Conjuring a Neutron Star from a Nanowire
Using tiny mechanical devices to create accelerations equivalent to 100 million times the Earth’s gravitational field—mimicking the arena of quantum gravity in the lab.
Congratulations to the 1300-strong group of physicists who won the Breakthrough Prize in physics on Sunday, for the discovery of neutrino oscillations—confirming that neutrinos can switch identities and have mass. This is the same discovery that was honored a few weeks ago by the Nobel committee, though notably in that case, only 2 physicists shared the prize. Which style of prize do you think is better? Should award committees seek out the individuals who head up big experiments for accolades, or should credit be shared equally between all involved? In the latest edition of the podcast, Brendan and I discuss this question, with help from astrophysicist Katie Mack of Melbourne University. (Katie Mack’s interview was actually recorded before the Breakthrough announcement was made—and so some of her comments seem eerily prescient.)
I’ve also written an article for Nature addressing the contrasting styles of the awards, with comments from organisers of the Breakthrough and Nobel prizes, and from new Nobel and Breakthrough Laureate Art McDonald, who led one of the honored experiments at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada.
Also in the news, Brendan and I talk through FQXi’s recently launched $2million Physics of the Observer grant round. If you’re interested in applying, don’t forget that the deadline is 20 January 2016.
We also have an in-depth interview with SETI scientist Laurance Doyle, who chats about his plans to bounce radar off Jupiter’s moons to test the nature of time. Speaking to reporter John Farrell, he explains why this could help separate the different conceptions of time offered by general relativity and quantum mechanics, potentially aiding in the unification of the two theories. You can read more about his project in Stephen Ashley’s article “Solar-System-Sized Experiment to Put Time to the Test"—which also includes video of a short talk that Doyle gave at last year’s FQXi conference.
Next up, physicist, philosopher and computational neuroscientist Nick Bostrom assesses the risk of humanity coming to an end—either through environmental disaster or due to runaway technological advances, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology or synthetic biology. He tells reporter Carinne Piekema just how worried we should be.
And finally, Brains from the TV show Thunderbirds explain quantum physics! Particle physicist Ben Still has ghostwritten a beginner’s guide to the subatomic world in the style of International Rescue’s aerospace engineer and he (Ben Still, that is!) tells reporter Sophie Hebden how he set about capturing Brains’ style.
We’re asking you to take a long hard look at yourself — and to think about what it means to be an "observer". Many problems in physics and cosmology implicitly or explicitly include this idea of an observer. But a tendency within physics to focus on objective phenomena and avoid subjectivity has led to a general avoidance of discussing exactly what an observer is. Not only has this habit avoided an intrinsically universal question, it has led to a situation in which many thinkers implicitly employ different meanings of "observer" in their work. They are then not able (or willing) to confront the impact of their definition on the questions they face.
In addition, the development of physics in the 20th century has led to a peculiar sort of polarization in thinking about the observer. Prior to the development of quantum mechanics, the observer was largely seen as irrelevant, as physics was about objective reality, by definition observer-independent. Quantum mechanics directly contradicted this view, requiring a much more nuanced understanding of the observation process and creating a lasting controversy between those embracing the observer’s role and those opposing its place.
As with previous FQXi programs on the Nature of Time, the Physics of Information, and the on-going Physics of What Happens, we believe that focusing the attention of the research community will start to bring us closer to “seeing” the solution to these problems.
Like our past programs, this one will feature support for foundational physics research, an international conference, essay and video contests, plus articles, blog posts, and the ever popular FQXi podcast. In addition, this program will for the first time also have a research component directly organized and coordinated by FQXi and its personnel.
First, let us announce the launch of our next Large Grant round. We will award a total of US$2.0M for projects examining Physics of the Observer. We welcome applications related to physics, cosmology, and closely related fields, such as neuroscience, philosophy, biophysics, complex systems, computer science, mathematics, and more.
Questions to think about include:
1. What does being an observer mean? The term 'observer' is used in contexts as varied as quantum foundations, biophysics, neuroscience and cognitive science, artificial intelligence, philosophy of consciousness, relativity, and cosmology. What are the properties or attributes that a system must have in order to constitute an ‘observer’ in these varying contexts?
2. What sort of physical systems have the requisite properties for those systems to construe various types of observers? In a spectrum from most simple to most complex physical structures, which systems constitute observers?
3. Are there interesting questions, to which the answers depend on how we think of observers?
Initial proposals are due on January 20, 2016. You can find full details about the RFP and more examples of questions on the website here. If you have any questions on this, please contact us at email@example.com.
The second major component of the Physics of the Observer program will foster a multidisciplinary network or researchers supported by centers in the Boston area and in the San Francisco Bay area. These two “B-Area” centers will be organized by FQXi Scientific Director Max Tegmark at MIT in Boston, and FQXi Associate Scientific Director Anthony Aguirre and Joshua Deutsch at the University of California - Santa Cruz. Supplementing previous experience in cosmology, gravity, quantum foundations, etc., Deutsch brings a powerful foundation in quantum mechanics, condensed matter, statistical mechanics, and biophysics to the team. Tegmark has been recently active in neuroscience research, and Aguirre & Tegmark have also been in deep-learning mode (get it?) regarding machine intelligence, in relation to work with the Future of Life Institute. With visitor programs and local meetings, the B-Area centers will attempt to generate somewhat coherent research programs in both areas, and personnel from the B-area centers will come together for two dedicated workshops.
Please stay tuned for future updates about FQXi contests, our 2016 conference, and all the other great content on the website. Here’s looking at you.
In the news round-up, Brendan and I discuss Hawking's new idea for solving the black hole information paradox, which he trailed in Sweden last week. It builds on holography, the idea from string theory that a lower dimensional copy of what falls into the black hole sits at the boundary of the black hole, that is at the event horizon. (You can read more about that idea in Sophie Hebden's article profiling FQXi member Andrew Strominger, "The Cosmic Hologram". Strominger has collaborated with Hawking on this new proposal, along with Cambridge University's Malcolm Perry.)
At the time of recording the podcast and posting this blog, we still do not know the details of this new theory. But there are promises that Hawking and his colleagues will be posting a paper on this soon. We'll update with more, as it appears. But the person to watch for the latest seems to be FQXi member Sabine Hossenfelder, who was at Hawking's talk, and is following developments over at her blog, Backreaction.
Feel free to discuss the latest reactions to that, on this thread.
With help from Matt Leifer, an FQXi member and quantum physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Brendan and I also run through the loophole-free Bell test that I blogged about last week, which seems to close the door on local realism (though I can see healthy debate about that on that thread).
On to our in-depth interviews: Reporter Carinne Piekema follows up her article and podcast interview with Keith Schwab last month on combining quantum mechanics and gravity in the lab, by chatting with Harvard's Igor Pikovski about an FQXi-funded project to discover whether time dilation -- the stretching of time due to gravity, in particular, in this case -- causes the quantum world to collapse into the classical one. (Read some of the background to this in reporter Sophie Hebden's profile of group member Caslav Brukner, "Time Dilation Gets a Quantum Twist.")
Hawking claims to solve black hole paradox & quantum spookiness passes toughest loophole-free test yet; relativity could cause quantum collapse; 5 steps for saving the world; quantum thermodynamics; & the physics filmmaker.
Next up, it's Sabine Hossenfelder, of the Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics, who, when she's not busy researching quantum gravity and blogging about Hawking, has been thinking about a way to make humans appreciate the best advice for saving the planet (and ourselves) and *crucially* to get them to act on it. That was the focus of her 2014 first-prize-winning entry in our "How to Steer Humanity" essay contest. Brendan caught up with Hossenfelder at the New Directions meeting in Washington, DC, recently, and asked her about how that plan is coming along.
We're back to the atomic realm with our next segment, in which UCL physicist Jonathan Oppenheim tells reporter Colin Stuart about how -- as engineers build nanorobots and tiny devices to be implanted in the body -- it is important to try to understand if quantum objects have their own thermodynamical laws. You can read more about that quest in Colin's article, "The Quantum Thermodynamical Revolution."
And finally, how do you make thrillers about physics? Who better to ask than physicist and filmmaker Dagomir Kaszlikowski, of the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore? Kaszlikowski tells Brendan about how his childhood in communist Poland influenced him in his pursuit of both science and moviemaking, what he hopes his FQXi award-winning film "Seeing Without Looking" achieved, and if he was forced to choose between his two passions now, which he would pick.
You can read about Kaszlikowski's research, on "quantum contextually," in this article by Nicola Jones, who also talks about the practical applications of this branch of quantum theory, for computing. ("Quantum in Context.") And you can, of course, watch "Seeing Without Looking," which also stars FQXi member Vlatko Vedral as a criminal physicist, here.
(Updating on 1 September to add that Malcolm Perry's talk about Hawking's work is now available (below). Thanks to Sabine Hossenfelder for alerting me.)
Spookiness, it seems, is here to stay. Quantum theory has been put to its most stringent “loophole free” test yet, and it has come out victorious, ruling out more common sense views of reality (well, mostly). Many thanks to Matt Leifer for bringing this experiment -- by a collaboration of researchers in the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK -- to my attention (arXiv:1508.05949).
A few years ago, I wrote a feature for Science about the quest to close loopholes in quantum entanglement experiments, with a number of groups around the world vying to perform the perfect test. ("Quantum Mechanics Braces for the Ultimate Test.") In that article, I quote quantum physicist and FQXi member Nicolas Gisin saying: “This race is on because the group that performs the first loophole-free test will have an experiment that stands in history.”
We may now have a winner.
The test is a version of an experiment set out in the 1960s, by Irish physicist John Bell. He came up with a way of working out whether nature was really as spooky as it seems on the quantum level, or if a more common sense explanation was possible. The “sensible” view of the world, in this case, is taken to be “local” and “realistic.” “Local,” in this context, means that information cannot travel between objects faster than the speed of light, so instantaneous communication is impossible. “Realistic” means that the properties of particles are set before they are observed, and are not affected by measurements made on them. By contrast, quantum theory says that prior to measurement, particles can exist in a murky superposition state where their properties are not clearly defined; it’s only upon measurement that their properties click and become well-defined. And quantum theory allows two entangled particles to become linked in such a way that when a measurement is performed on one (breaking it out of superposition, and clicking it into a well-defined state), the properties of its entangled partner will likewise become defined, instantaneously — no matter how far apart they are separated.
Bell suggested that experimenters should entangle a string of particles and measure how well their properties match up. He derived a theorem showing that the common sense view of the world (local realism) can only account for correlations between the particles up to a certain limit. If experiments measured a violation of that bound, then the common-sense view would have to be given up in favour of the spooky quantum one.
Those experiments were first carried out in the 1970s and, more famously and strictly, in 1980s, and have been performed many times since, and always seem to come down on the side of quantum theory. This has convinced most physicists that the world truly is bizarre on tiny scales.
But all experiments have loopholes, and to get a truly definitive result, these need to be closed. One such loophole is the “detection loophole”. In many Bell tests, experimenters entangle photons and then measure their properties. The trouble is photons zip about quickly, and often simply escape from the experiment before being detected and measured. Physicists can lose as many as 80 per cent of the photons in their test. That means that experimenters have to make a ‘fair sampling’ assumption that the ones that they *do* detect are representative of the ones that have gone missing. For the conclusions to be watertight, however, you really want to keep track of all the subjects in your test.
It is easier to keep hold of entangled ions, which have been used in other experiments. The catch there, however, is that these are not often kept far enough apart to rule out the less spooky explanation that the two entangled partners simply influence each other, communicating at a speed that is less than the speed of light, during the experiment. This is known as the “communication loophole” or the “locality loophole.”
In the new paper by Hensen et al, the authors describe measuring electrons with entangled spins. The entangled pairs have been separated by 1.3 km, to ensure that they do not have time to communicate (at a speed slower than the speed of light) over the course of the experiment.
They cleverly use a technique known as "entanglement swapping" to tie up both loopholes, combining the benefits of photons (which can travel long distances) with electrons (which are easier to monitor). Their electrons are placed in two different labs, 13km apart. The spin of each electron is then entangled with a photon and those two photons are fired off to a third location, where they are entangled with each other. As soon as the photons are entangled, BINGO, so too are the two original electron spins, seated in vastly distant labs. The team carried out 245 trials of the experiment, comparing entangled electrons, and report that Bell’s bound is violated.
From their paper:
”Our experiment realizes the first Bell test that simultaneously addresses both the detection loophole and the locality loophole. Being free of the experimental loopholes, the setup can test local realist theories of nature without introducing extra assumptions such as fair-sampling, a limit on (sub-)luminal communication or the absence of memory in the setup. Our observation of a loophole-free Bell inequality violation thus rules out all local realist theories that accept that the number generators timely produce a free random bit and that the outputs are final once recorded in the electronics. This result places the strongest restrictions on local realistic theories of nature to date.”
As a test of the foundations of reality, for most physicists, these experiments dot the i’s and cross the t’s. It seemed unlikely that given the other Bell tests performed so far — even with their loopholes — that quantum theory would be found wanting, in a loophole-free test. That’s because each of the earlier experiments were so different from each other, and had different weaknesses, that nature would have to have been cunning, in quite different and particular kinds of ways in each previous experiment, to keep fooling us into thinking quantum theory was correct, if it is not. But it is important, nonetheless, to test quantum theory to its limits. After all, you never know.
There are also huge practical applications, though. A major motivation, as I explain in the Science feature, is that loophole free Bell tests are an essential step towards ‘device-independent quantum cryptography’ — creating a security system so tight that you could trust it even if you bought it from your worst enemy.
Such a device would go beyond those quantum cryptographic systems that are already in place, which use entanglement to add create “unhackable” keys. In those systems, you share a string of entangled particle pairs between two parties (the sender and receiver) and they each independently perform measurements of their set of particles to generate a matching string of 0s and 1s to make up a key that only they should know. If a hacker tries to eavesdrop on the system, their presence will disrupt the quantum key, alerting the legitimate users and raising an alarm.
Those systems are fine, assuming you really have been sold a quantum cryptographic system. But an unsuspecting buyer could be tricked by a hacker purporting to sell a genuine quantum cryptographic device, who actually just gives them a black box, preprogrammed with a string of 0s and 1s that she’s set up beforehand. The user would be none the wiser.
To get around this, in 1991, Artur Ekert came up with the idea for a device that had to verify its quantum credentials using a Bell test at the same time as generating the key, so the user would know that it was working correctly, and was genuinely using a quantum process to produce the key. But such “device independent quantum cryptography” can only be trusted if the Bell tests are watertight. As Gisin told me for the Science piece, “It’s unlikely that nature is so malicious that it conspires with the apparatus to hold back particular photons just to fool us into thinking that quantum mechanics works,” but, a “hacker—by definition—is malicious enough to exploit the detection loophole to fool us into thinking that a quantum process has taken place.”
There is still another way that nature could be tricking us in quantum tests. It seems a bit outlandish, but it’s possible that experimenters are somehow being manipulated into measuring certain properties in tests and not others, distorting the results. This is sometimes called the “freedom-of-choice” loophole. Last year, I wrote about a fun experiment that used light from distant quasars to help experimenters choose what measurements to make in the lab — in an attempt to rule out the possibility that the experimenters choices were being mysteriously biased by stuff in the experiment itself. That article appeared in Nature, “Cosmic Light Could Close Quantum Weirdness Loophole”.
The authors touch on remaining loopholes at the end of their paper:
“Strictly speaking, no Bell experiment can exclude the infinite number of conceivable local realist theories, because it is fundamentally impossible to prove when and where free random input bits and output values came into existence. Even so, our loophole-free Bell test opens the possibility to progressively bound such less conventional theories: by increasing the distance between A and B (testing e.g. theories with increased speed of physical influence), using different random input bit generators (testing theories with specific free-will agents, e.g. humans), or repositioning the random input bit generators (testing theories where the inputs are already determined earlier, sometimes referred to as “freedom-of-choice” ). In fact, our experiment already excludes all models that predict that the random inputs are determined a maximum of 690 ns before we record them, because the inequality is still violated for a much shorter spin readout.”
In remembrance of Jacob Bekenstein, a guest post by his friend and colleague Eduardo Guendelman, Physics Department, Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheva, Israel.
It is with great sorrow that we report on the passing of Professor Jacob D. Bekenstein from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. Jacob was born in Mexico City in 1947 and obtained his undergraduate and M Sc degrees in 1969 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. His Ph.D work obtained from Princeton University in 1972 under the guidance of John A. Wheeler contained his breakthrough discovery of black hole entropy which started the subject of black hole thermodynamics.
Bekenstein's findings were supported by the discovery of black hole radiation by Hawking, who had initially opposed his ideas. Bekenstein was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, and then faculty member (1974-1990) at the Ben Gurion University in Israel where he became full professor in 1978 and then Arnow Professor of Astrophysics in 1983. I had the fortune to be his post doctoral fellow at Ben Gurion University (1985-1988) at the time when he was developing his famous Entropy Bounds, We worked on this subject and this was a great opportunity to get to know not only a great scientist but also an outstanding human being.
Since 1990 he has been at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (since 1993 as Polak Professor of Theoretical Physics). Other scientific interests Jacob had have been relativistic magnetohydrodynamics, galactic dynamics, physical aspects of information theory, development of consistent theories with a time dependent fine structure constant, the development of alternatives to dark matter by modifying gravity and more recently also designing realistic experiments to explore quantum gravity. .
Bekenstein was a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (since 1997) and of The World Jewish Academy of Sciences, and has been honored with the Landau Prize (1981), the Rothschild Prize (1988), the Israel National Prize (2005), the Weizmann Prize (2011), the Wolf Prize 2012 and most recently the Einstein Prize of the American Physical Society for 2015.
He will be greatly missed as a great scientist and as a great man. He is survived by his wife Bilha and their three children.
The Physics of What Happens Grantees By BRENDAN FOSTER
This past winter, FQXi announced it's fifth Large Grant program, on the topic of The Physics of What Happens – a call for proposals for research and outreach projects on "Events". I am happy to announce that from an initial group of almost 250...
Action and Excitement and Science! - Podcast... By BRENDAN FOSTER
[picture]In our new special edition of the FQXi podcast, we ask, what is the best way to interest and excite the public about physics, especially foundational physics? Do we just stick to the facts, or do we need slogans, explosions, and, ahem,...
The Reality of the Wavefunction By ZEEYA MERALI
[picture]A couple of months ago we spoke with quantum physicists Martin Ringbauer and Alessandro Fedrizzi of the University of Queensland, in Australia, on the podcast, about their experiment looking into the nature of the wavefunction. Their results...
Collapsing Physics, Celebrating Ghirardi By ZEEYA MERALI
[picture]Yesterday afternoon at the quantum foundations meeting in Erice (supported by COST) we celebrated the 80th birthday (somewhat in advance) of GianCarlo Ghirardi who famously worked on collapse models, in an attempt to deal with the quantum...
Detecting Dark Matter Using Space-Based Quantum... By ZEEYA MERALI
[picture]I’m lucky enough to be attending a COST Action workshop on quantum foundations currently taking place in Erice, Italy, with lots of FQXi folk in attendance. (Thank you to the organisers, FQXi’s Angelo Bassi, Catalina Oana Curceanu and...