Sunday, November 23, 2014

Oh, What an Entangled Web We Weave, When First We Practice to Perceive

Fifty years ago this month, physicist John Bell submitted a paper on what his fellow physicists called the "Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox," a feature of subatomic particles that made no sense whatsoever, that Albert Einstein himself called "spooky" and which even today we probably do not really understand.

Subatomic particles like electrons have certain qualities, like polarity and "spin." When physicists say these tiny bits of stuff have spin, they do not mean the kind of spinning done by a top, a planet or a four-year-old trying to get dizzy, but another kind of feature entirely that is mostly beyond my brainwaves. Anyway, if get a pair of particles together and you know that their combined spin is zero, you know that they have opposite spins from each other. And if one changes its spin, then so does the other -- instantaneously. Which is, according to what physicists know about the universe, the speed of light and the laws of nature, impossible.

It may not look impossible at short distances, because the speed of light is so fast (186,000 miles per second, if you remember) that human perception could never pick up the lag. But even when the pair of previously entangled particles is separated by significant distances, the instantaneous change still happens. No experiment has shown any reason to suppose that the two particles would not continue their linkage, even if they somehow found themselves billions of light years apart.

Prior to Bell, quantum physicists mostly ignored entanglement since it didn't have much of an impact on what they were doing. But it remained, a gaping hole in quantum theory's ability to describe the world. If my theory of the way the world works requires things to happen that contradict things we can already prove true, then I have to do one of two things: 1) Explain why what we think is happening isn't happening or 2) Explain how the theory really does cover what's happening. There is a third, but it's really just abandoning the whole theory as unworkable. This is the kind of choice you make when all of your other ones fail.

But Bell's paper began exploring entanglement and insisting on keeping it in the mix as a part of the explanation for how the world works. Later developments have put a little light on what's happening with those two particles, but Einstein may have had one thing right about the phenomenon: It's spooky.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cold War Wind-Up

Earlier this month, many people marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, part of the several things that signaled the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the exception of a handful of countries and a significant majority of university campuses, these events put a period on the inadequate economic and political system called Communism. Theories about how and why this happened abound, but many center on U.S. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Secretary Gorbachev was the youngest of the four and is is the only one still living.

John O'Sullivan's The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister sketches several elements of the leadership and activities of the three Western leaders during the late 1970s and into the 1980s when events began to coalesce. John Paul became a face for freedom's struggle by being selected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, Baroness Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979 and President Reagan took office in 1980. O'Sullivan describes how each of the three initially came into leadership positions after some time on the sidelines, and focuses primarily on their interactions as they opposed the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. He offers some side information on how they interacted with each other, especially Reagan and Thatcher.

John Paul's role in strengthening Poles who insisted on religious freedom helped expose the economic weaknesses that had begun the erode Soviet power. Moscow did not have the resources to help Polish Communist leaders put down the freedom movements without overwhelming force, and the prospect of being frozen out of international trade left that option unusable. After O'Sullivan offers these details, he mostly switches to the role of Reagan, supported by Thatcher. PPPM reads quickly and offers substantial footnotes to look at more expansive treatments of the era's history and primary sources. Although the three did not necessarily coordinate their activities or even do the majority of their work at the same time, O'Sullivan's idea is that the three of them each took a swing at their Cold War opponents that eventually succeeded in breaking up both the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union.
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The news coverage I remember of the Reykjavik summit in 1986 was almost uniformly bleak, because no great agreement came from the meeting. But as Ken Adelman, who was on the arms control negotiating team at Reykjavik, points out, most of what would be a 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) was hammered out in the sessions at the Höfði House.

Adelman's eyewitness account of much of the negotiating sessions is the meat of Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. He also describes some of the lead-up to the summit and its context -- news organizations following Raisa Gorbachev around the city because they'd brought immense teams to cover an event that was going on behind closed doors, for example.

According to the way Adelman saw it, one thing that media coverage got both right and wrong was the role of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) space-based missile shield. This plan, usually referred to "Star Wars" because of its near science-fictional operating system of lasers shooting at rockets, was something Reagan believed in passionately because of his hatred of the threat of nuclear annihilation. Adelman notes that Reagan believed in SDI more than some of its planners, possibly being overly optimistic about the timetable for its effective completion. His commitment to it would not allow him to agree to test it only in the laboratory instead of in the field. Whether Gorbachev believed SDI would work or not, he knew that Reagan did and he remained firm.

But faced with increasing economic troubles at home, the USSR eventually had to turn resources from military use to other areas, and the 1987 INF treaty conceded the point. Adelman may overstate his case; whatever major role Reykjavik played in the collapse of Soviet power was not the only factor. Much subsequent writing on the end years of the Cold War downplays Reagan's work and sometimes even Gorbachev's, focusing on economic tides that neither man would have had much success in turning or reinforcing. But it's difficult to imagine stolid party oldtimers like Konstantin Chernenko or Yuri Andropov "smelling the coffee" of economic reality the way Gorbachev did, and Gorbachev himself said that the negotiations and treaties would probably not have happened had he been across the table from anyone but Reagan.

The Cold War ended either way, and whether it happened because stalwart defenders of freedom led three major opponents of Soviet power or because economic inevitability picked that decade to come due or because of a mixture of both views, it's interesting to revisit events I can remember and judge how I see them after a few more years turning calendar pages. Both books are worth the time and can offer material worth thinking about.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Some Days, It Is Easy

Despite the problems noted by a certain wise and well-known frog, some days it's absolutely awesome to be green:


Photographer Max Rive took this image of the Northern Lights at the Austnesfjorden Fjord in northern Norway.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thankful Potpourri!

-- A hundred and ninety-four physicists have determined that peanut butter has no apparent effect on the rotation of the earth. The hundred and ninety-fifth demurred, saying the evidence was inconclusive. He's also still unsure about Crest toothpaste and Trident gum.

-- What does the fox say? "I'm pretty darn cute,"  over and over, in these photos from Russian miner Ivan Kislov. I'll copy one. All ahead, "Awwwww-factor 10," Mr. Sulu:


-- Thanks to the good folk at Mental Floss, here are nine words that started out as errors. Understandably, they are still compiling the list of political careers that started out as errors and the latest estimates have swung back to the chance that the list will be finished before the heat death of the universe.

-- The University of Iowa is digitizing a collection of some 10,000 science fiction fanzines, dating back to the 1930s and containing hand-drawn fan art as well as early work by some big-time names. I sense the possibility of a strong, stay-at-home-while-reading-for-hours-on-end disturbance in the Force...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bart Gummer, Please Call Your Office

A species of glow-in-the-dark worm has been discovered in the Amazon which lures its prey into its jaws with a phosphorescent glow and then closes its jaws around the unhappy light-seeking prey.

Entomologist Aaron Pomerantz said the worms apparently feed much like the fictional graboids of Tremors -- and I am not the one making the comparson, he is. They emerge from the ground to snap their jaws shut on their meals.

Dr. Pomerantz could offer no information on whether or not the carnivorous glowworms (which, as my Dave Barry Fan Club card requires me to tell you, would make a great name for a band) picked the wrong, ah, gosh-darned rec room to break into.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Moment of Observance

All fluorescing-nosed reindeer will dim their lights for five minutes on Dec. 24th in memory of Arthur Rankin, Jr., who passed away in Bermuda last week.

Monday, November 17, 2014

You Keep Using that Word

Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis think they have found the genetic markers that may have helped ancestral wildcats shed much of their original behavior to become the domesticated housecat of today.

Researchers examined the genome map of a domestic Abyssinian housecat and compared it with the genomes of a couple of Near Eastern wildcats, which are Tabby's nearest cousins. Several genes, such as those governing control of fear responses and the ability to learn new behavior, were different in each brand of cat. The scientists noted that a decreased fear response and ability to learn would be important traits for cats that were adapting to live in a -- somewhat -- social relationship with human beings.

When presented with the results of the research, housecats were heard to respond, "Say 'domesticated' one more time, monkey-boy."