George Musser - If space isn’t what we thought it was, then what is it? Musser sets out to answer that question, offering a provocative exploration of nonlocality and a celebration of the scientists who are trying to understand it
George Musser, Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Explore the phenomenon that mystified Einstein and that today’s physicists think could transform our notions of space and time.
What is space? It isn’t a question that most of us normally stop to ask. Space is the venue of physics; it’s where things exist, where they move and take shape. Yet over the past few decades, physicists have discovered a phenomenon that operates outside the confines of space and time. The phenomenon of nonlocality—the ability of two particles to act in harmony across the vastness of space—appears to be almost magical. Einstein grappled with this oddity and couldn’t make sense of it, describing it as “spooky action at a distance.” More recently, the mystery has deepened as other forms of nonlocality have turned up. This strange occurrence, which has direct connections to black holes, particle collisions, and even the workings of gravity, holds the potential to undermine our most basic understanding of physical reality. If space isn’t what we thought it was, then what is it?
In Spooky Action at a Distance, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, award-winning science writer George Musser sets out to answer that question, offering a provocative exploration of nonlocality and a celebration of the scientists who are trying to understand it. Musser guides us on an epic journey of scientific discovery into the lives of experimental physicists observing particles acting in tandem, astronomers finding galaxies that look statistically identical, and cosmologists hoping to unravel the paradoxes surrounding the big bang. He traces the often contentious debates over nonlocality through major discoveries and disruptions of the twentieth century and explains how scientists faced with the same undisputed experimental evidence develop wildly different explanations for that evidence. Their conclusions challenge our understanding not only of space and time but of the origins of the universe—and they suggest a new grand unified theory of physics. Delightfully readable, Spooky Action at a Distance is a mind-bending voyage to the frontiers of modern physics that will change the way we think about reality.
“Musser deftly traces the history of our quest to understand this curious phenomenon, covering an ambitious breadth of challenging topics from string theory to the multiverse to the unification of physics.” —Science
“A highly enjoyable tour-de-force . . . Amid the superb writing here is a lot of information that will bring you up to date on everything you should know about this compelling mystery . . . this book will be one of the reading highlights of your year.” —David Eicher, Astronomy magazine
“Ambitious . . . the author has done a monumental job of translating recondite theory into laymen's terms.” —Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History
“In this polished study of the concept that Albert Einstein dubbed 'spooky action at a distance', science writer George Musser tours the entangled research, history and philosophical speculation surrounding it . . . proving that this is one of the most engrossing disputes in science.” —Nature
“Can two subatomic particles on opposite sides of the universe truly be instantaneously connected? Or is any theory that predicts such a connection necessarily flawed or incomplete? Are the results of experiments that demonstrate such a connection being misinterpreted? Such questions challenge our most basic concepts of spatial distance and time. In Spooky Action At A Distance, George Musser beautifully navigates through the history, science, and philosophy of these mind-boggling conundrums, and expounds cutting edge thinking.” —Mario Livio
“George Musser gives us a fascinating tour of the latest attempts on the frontiers of physics to answer one of the oldest questions in science: What is space? And the wonderful lesson is that the deeper we look into the question, the more captivating it becomes.” —Lee Smolin
“With clever metaphors and dry humor, acclaimed science communicator George Musser is the perfect tour guide on this wild ride through wormholes and emergent dimensions to the cutting edge of physics. This quest to understand the ultimate nature of space may forever transform how you think about the very fabric of reality.” —Max Tegmark
“Modern physics is in the process of dismantling the very space all around us, and the universe will never be the same. In this engaging book, George Musser leads us through the thickets of science and philosophy and takes us to the brink of a very different view of the world.” —Sean Carroll
“Locality has been a fruitful and reliable principle, guiding us to the triumphs of twentieth-century physics. Yet the consequences of local laws in quantum theory can seem 'spooky' and nonlocal-and some theorists are questioning locality itself. Spooky Action at a Distance is a lively introduction to these fascinating paradoxes and speculations.” —Frank Wilczek
Two particles behave identically and instantaneously though separated by great space and with no force passing between them. How? Award-winning Scientific American contributing editor Musser (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory, 2008) probes the riddle.
Locality was the bedrock of physics for centuries. “It means that everything has a place. You can always point to an object and say, ‘Here it is.’ If you can’t, that thing must really not exist,” writes the author in this anything-but-simple story of nonlocality. Einstein understood locality as both separability—things in separate places have independent existences—and local action: objects interact by striking one another or intermediarily. Musser covers the evolution of physics’ method of physical inquiry, “driven by the conviction that the universe is within the human power to understand,” with comprehensible rules and a history of systematic investigation for reference: from Zeno and Democritus to Newton, who turned inquiry—and locality—on its head. Newton couldn’t explain gravity, but his equations proved out. Now, writes Musser, “modern physicists think of any theory as having two separate functions. First, the theory should provide a mathematical description....Second, the theory should provide an ‘interpretation’ of the formulas: a compelling picture of what’s going on….” But the second part is flexible enough that physicists can “kick away the interpretation and let the equations stand on their own.” Much the same can be said about the entire quantum revolution and certainly nonlocality: locality may be a precondition for relativity, but there are enough instances of flabbergasting nonlocality to suggest that space is simply a convenient notion to describe order. With brio and dash, Musser navigates the difficult science and also introduces interesting characters such as Michael Heller, “a physicist, philosopher, and priest” at Krakow’s Pontifical Academy of Theology, and theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed, winner of the 2012 Fundamental Physics Prize.
An endlessly surprising foray into the current mother of physics’ many knotty mysteries, the solving of which may unveil the weirdness of quantum particles, black holes, and the essential unity of nature. - Kirkus Reviews
In this accessible and imaginative book, science journalist Musser (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory) introduces readers to the “mother of all physics riddles”: nonlocality—the weird entanglement between particles in different places, which could help scientists better understand black holes, unified field theories, and other phenomena. Experimental evidence has long suggested that distant particles could indeed be connected, but in the early 20th century, many theoretical physicists thought that accepting nonlocality was like using magic to explain physics. Einstein held that it violates his theory of relativity, calling it “spooky action at a distance.” Nearly a century later, there’s still no good explanation for how nonlocality works. Musser explores nonlocality’s possible role in black holes and wormholes, quantum teleportation, cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, and even the existence of free will. Along the way, he introduces some of the scientists who have worked on nonlocality, including black hole expert Charles Misner, cosmologist Steve Giddings, and physicist John Stewart Bell, whose groundbreaking eponymous theorem makes nonlocality an “unavoidable” aspect of the universe. Clarity and humor illuminate Musser’s writing, and he adroitly captures the excitement and frustration involved in investigating the mysteries of our universe. - Publishers Weekly
The title of George Musser's book, Spooky Action at a Distance, is what Einstein called the phenomenon of (quantum) entanglement: essentially, separated particles that nevertheless act as though there were a(n instant) connection -- apparently impossibly so, given that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. The issue arose with the discovery of quantum mechanics, but despite Einstein's misgivings and attempts to show there were consequences that needed to be addressed (notably in his paper on the EPR paradox), already in the 1930s, there was relatively little interest or work done in this area until J.S.Bell brought the concept of entanglement to the fore again in the 1960s (and even then, it took a while for scientists to engage with Bell's groundbreaking work). (See, for example, Louisa Gilder's The Age of Entanglement for an overview of the history of entanglement.)
Entanglement makes a mockery of the idea of locality -- that cause and effect must be local, one thing tangibly (in some form) acting on another. Musser nicely lays out how we came to believe in a local world -- but also notes that it wasn't always so. In particular, gravity, as conceived by Newton, could be seen as nonlocal -- its effect instantaneous, across any distance, without any obvious means of how that force (or whatever one wants to consider it) is transmitted. And so:
For millennia, natural philosophers recoiled from nonlocality; in the eighteenth century, they embraced it. Put simply, they were for locality until they were against it. And no sooner did scholars get used to Newtonian nonlocality when along came another U-turn and a new generation went back to thinking that the world had to be -- just had to be -- local, thereby setting up the present predicament.
Musser entertainingly and quite accessibly guides readers along the paths this has now taken, as entanglement is now all the rage -- but the dispute over nonlocality far from over, as scientists (and philosophers) posit and test theories of what might lie behind entanglement; there's still nothing close to a consensus as to how to explain it. He considers many of the ways of seeing and addressing the question -- which necessitates a fundamental reassessment of the nature of reality and what the laws of physics might be (also, in particular, at its extremes -- hence there's considerable discussion of black holes). Focused on the concept of 'space' (as in place, location, and dimension, rather than the 'outer'-sense), he eventually notes too:
(S)pace might be the exception, not the rule; most proposed unified theories of physics suggest that the vast majority of the universe's possible states are nonspatial.
Musser serves up many of the ways of seeing things -- the various theories floating around and being pursued -- and gives a good general idea of them (and, often -- though perhaps not always clearly enough --, their weaknesses, including the difficulty of proving them in any meaningful way, with internal consistency often pretty much the best that these often very abstract theories have to offer)).
His tour includes meeting many of the scientists behind the theories and work, and while the short encounters can give only limited insight they add a nice human touch to the (often very) abstract theory -- and also at least suggest one of the other interesting issues raised by the subject matter, and the book, as Musser already suggests early on that: "nonlocality is an ideal case study for scientific disputes". By the midway point he reports:
When I started looking into the question of whether nature is truly nonlocal or merely puts on a good show -- and therefore whether our conventional notions of space are in as much trouble as it seems -- I figured I'd attend a conference or two, have a few chats over coffee, and sort it all out. [...] I wasn't so naïve as to think that a roomful of professors would agree, but at least I thought I should be able to pinpoint exactly where they disagreed -- to boil the dispute down to a choice between equally defensible assumptions. Often I could. But sometimes when I tried to grasp the nub of the disagreement, I found myself clutching at vapors.
Interesting also are his somewhat disappointed observations of how many of the scientists he met seemed to speak past each other, with little constructive debate about viewpoints X or Y, as they instead each just make the same arguments about their own favored one without really engaging with the other. (Compare this also with Mara Beller's seminal Quantum Dialogue for more on the role of dialogue in scientific work.) While there are exceptions, the picture that emerges here is largely one of limited mutual engagement or truly constructive dialogue -- in part, no doubt, because of the very theoretical nature of much at issue here -- somewhat at odds with the popular picture of a scientific community that is much more interconnected, building on the work of others. So too, Musser repeatedly notes the surprising faddishness of much of the work: repeatedly, theories are ignored or not followed up on because the time just isn't right (beginning with the several decades from the 1930s on when: "nonlocality was a nonissue", simply enough).
Spooky Action at a Distance is almost deceptively easy-going in style and presentation, Musser managing quite well to make it easy on the (lay-)reader with a veering-on-folksy tone and references (light as both wave and particle ? "That makes as much sense as a vegan butcher"), even as he presents a great deal of often complex scientific concepts. His focus tends to be on the mind-blowing different-ways-of-seeing reality aspects, rather than, say, the mathematical detail behind much of this -- no equations to worry about, but some nice, simple illustrations -- but that's perfectly fine for an introductory overview book like this. There's not all that much differentiation here -- Musser's is a buffet-book, heaping it all on one plate -- but that too is fine, and interested readers are fairly well-served with an extensive bibliography and all the references, allowing them to explore further.
Spooky Action at a Distance is an entertaining and informative popular-science book, with Musser doing a very good job of conveying the concept (and consequences, in various possible manifestations) of nonlocality. - M.A.Orthofer
“Spooky Action at a Distance” explores the question Why aren’t you here? And if you aren’t here, what is it that prevents you from being here? Trying to answer this simple-sounding question leads you down a rabbit hole where you have to discuss the nature of space and time with many-world proponents and philosophers. In his book, George reports back what he’s found down in the rabbit hole.Locality and non-locality are topics as confusing as controversial, both in- and outside the community, and George’s book is a great introduction to an intriguing development in contemporary physics. It’s a courageous book. I can only imagine how much headache writing it must have been, after I once organized a workshop on nonlocality and realized that no two people could agree on what they even meant with the word.
George is a very gifted writer. He gets across the most relevant concepts the reader needs to know on a nontechnical level with a light and unobtrusive humor. The historical background is nicely woven together with the narrative, and the reader gets to meet many researchers in the field, Steve Giddings, Fotini Markopoulou, and Nima Arkani-Hamed, to only mention a few.
In his book, George lays out how the attitude of scientists towards nonlocality has gone from acceptance to rejection and makes a case that now the pendulum is swinging back to acceptance again. I think he is right that this is the current trend (thus the workshop).
I found the book somewhat challenging to read because I was constantly trying to translate George’s metaphors back into equations and I didn’t always succeed. But then that’s a general problem I have with popular science books and I can’t blame George for this. I have another complaint though, which his that George covers a lot of different research in rapid succession without adding qualifiers about these research programs’ shortcomings. There’s quantum graphity and string theory and black holes in AdS and causal sets and then there’s many worlds. The reader might be left with the mistaken impression that these topics are somehow all related with each other.
Spooky Action at a Distance starts out as an Ode to Steve Giddings and ends as a Symphony for Arkani-Hamed. For my taste it’s a little too heavy on person-stories, but then that seems to be the style of science writing today. In summary, I can only say it’s a great book, so go buy it, you won’t regret it.
Fade-out ramble: You shouldn’t judge a book by its subtitle, really, but whoever is responsible for this title-inflation, please make it stop. What’s next? Print the whole damn book on the cover?