When 2 become 1

My role on RTU is gradually trending towards considering the the very small, for which I make no protest. It is not so much that the relativistic universe does not fascinate me or that cosmological inflation doesn’t push my buttons; but my plans for the future take a specific path towards the quantum end of the spectrum meaning much of my additional reading is focused in this area.

My last post simple harmonic motion, was the first in a new technical series – posts which will appear infrequently but contain the mathematical rigour required to get behind the details of a particular subject. As promised, we now return today to a more discursive post to consider one of the big ticket quantum effects – quantum entanglement. Towards the end of the post, as we cover Bell’s theorem the reader will be required to think through some basic probability – this can be done by a beginner with no mathematical background.

The basic principles

“Spooky action at a distance.” – Albert Einstein

You may recall from previous posts that describing a quantum particle’s state is characterised by the wave  function- a partial differential equation describing the wave-like properties of a quantum particle (we keep saying quantum particle to indicate that such complexities are not required when considering a classical particle). Imagine the wave function as a  machine, the type where you put things in and get something else out. A classic machine.


Into this machine we can throw different information (for example the degrees of freedom within a quantum system), then (ignoring the inner workings) out of the machine comes a crisp mathematical expression offering a complete probabilistic description of the particles options. Everything a particle may do, expressed in a probabilistic expression. We have been considering all the information we need to feed the machine about particle to arrive at this description of its universe, but what happens if some of the information we need is in fact the information about another particle? There you have it, after less than 300 words we have quantum entanglement.

Let’s enrich our understanding with an example. Quantum particles posses a quality known as spin. It isn’t quite the same as the dictionary definition of the word – that is the Physicists favourite game, to alter the meaning of words – but in this instance it isn’t too far away either. For those who are interested, quantum spin is a form of angular momentum carried by particles; which for the really astute is what omega represents in a classical system in my post on simple harmonic motion. For the purposes of our illustration let the spin take one of two values; up or down (these expressions used in particle physics). The spin can be one of these two values here, the choice is binary. A photon; the quantum of light, is indeed a particle which may possess one of these two spin values. If you take a laser, and aim it correctly at a certain type of crystal you can create pairs of photons which become entangled – that is to say the qualities one possess has a direct consequence on the other. It is observed that if we measure the spin one of the photons as up, the other will certainly be down.

There is more to the above – intuitively it might seem as though it makes sense, if two photons are fired off near to each other that they have some sort of influence on each other but the effects of quantum entanglement  are not interested in how close they are to one another. The same phenomena will be measured even when the particles are separated by great distances; this is what elevates quantum mechanics to being spooky action at a distance.

There are a couple of things worth illuminating at this point. Firstly, we are not suggesting that the particles are sending messages to each other, while we may not be able to fully explain how quantum entanglement works we are reasonably sure there are no secret messages. Secondly, whilst we are saying that the particles will have opposite spin we are not saying we can accurately predict the spin of both of them; we can just say A if we already know B. Finally, whilst we may strive to understand to understand how nature works it is unwise, particularly at the present, to attempt to understand why nature works in that way. Indeed a question of why nature does something may in itself have no meaning, but let us climb out of the philosophical rabbit hole and progress.

Is it actually real?

In order to progress in the field of Physics we need to abandon common sense – whilst it can take you so far it is riddled with human bias. Although this is a most excellent practice, it is prudent to ensure that as you abandon common sense you seek evidence wherever possible to confirm the nonsense.

In this spirit, I offer you an overview of Bell’s inequality, which is the single most compelling piece of evidence supporting quantum entanglement. It also gives a more rounded understanding of what we are dealing with. Locality is the idea that an event in one location cannot instantaneously cause some effect in another location, without having something travel from A to B (for example light or sound). This is common sense – if a gun is fired in Australia, a person won’t instantly die in London (at least not because of the Australian gunshot). Einstien tried to show the world that quantum mechanics must be flawed since it breaks locality, which is clearly at odds with the universe. Bell killed locality, and showed the universe was at odds with us.


 To begin, assume locality is true. Mathematicians often do this – it is called proof by contradiction where we assume the contra is true and then reduce it to absurdity. We say that locality is true – i.e. quantum entanglement as we described it cannot exist because the very heart of it is causing an effect instantly somewhere else. The most common way to test anything in particle physics is with detectors; there are all sorts of different detectors (a photomultiplier being a personal favourite), but truly for comprehension just let the detector be a device which measures information about a particle. We want to do an experiment where we measure information about locality – so I can assume you will be comfortable in the assertion that it is useless to have only one detector. We need two detectors, which we will place in locations such that we can take measurements at exactly the same time and there is no chance one particle will influence the other. Under our assumption that locality is preserved, I should see no dependence in the results from the two detectors.

In the experiment electrons are used – they are fairly easy to come by and manipulate in laboratory settings. In order to get things going, we place both the detectors with the same set up, separated by a good distance and fire electrons at them and observe the result – in this case we get the same reading on both detectors (don’t worry about what the reading actually is, it only distracts from comprehension of the key points). From this we conclude that they must be coming out of the source the same – we can fire millions and millions of electrons and the result is always the same and agreement between the two detectors so locality lives on.

Now we tinker with our experiment a little and move the set up around. Our detectors can only give the value 1 or 0; there is no choice in-between. As we mess around with the detectors we can gather the following information;

  • The electron pairs fired from the source begin the “same” as described above;
  • There are circumstances where we get a 1 regardless of how we orient our detector;
  • In other set ups, we get a 1 in 2/3 of the detector arrangements and a 0 in the other 1/3.

Now with last point, if we were to randomly set up our detector each time, and repeat the experiment again and again and again how many times would you expect both detectors to have the same result? That is a 1 on both or a 0 on both? You need to think this through, it’s not that intuitive I am afraid.

The probability part:

Take detector A and detector B, both of which can be in three possible positions, call them – 1, 2 or 3 for obvious reasons. If we write the positions of the two detectors as (A,B) the possible configurations are (1,1),(1,2),(1,3),(2,1),(2,2),(2,3),(3,1),(3,2) and (3,3). Now based on the last bullet point “we get a 1 in 2/3 of the detector arrangements and a 0 in the other 1/3” -let’s say if the detectors are in position 1 or 2 I get the measurement  1, and if they are in 3 I get the measurement 0. How often will the readers have the same value? The answer is 5/9 – four from the arrangements where I get the measurement 1 on both readers [configurations (1,1) (1,2) (2,2) (2,1)] and one from the arrangement I get the measurement 0 on both readers, (3,3).

In this experiment the orientation of the detectors, as in the set up that gives the reading of 1 or 0 is totally random and changing. We don’t actually know what the instructions are being sent from the the source, so we can’t say it will be 5/9. But what we do know by bullet point 1 is that the electrons being fired have the same instructions. The instruction and the set up might always deliver the same result, as per bullet point 2 or, or we might get the set up we have just described where we said 5/9 should be in agreement. Actually it does not matter because what we can construct is a lower bound on the probability – this is what Bell’s inequality actually is –

Probability of agreement between detectors > 5/9

What we have done up to now is outline an experiment and make some very broad brush assumptions. The reason we have had seemingly confusing random arrangements of detectors with 0s and 1s is so that we don’t get lost in a long discussion about the different states of quantum particles and how or why we get certain readings. When you are trying to understand something, it makes no sense to layer on top another 4 or 5 things – let the brain digest a layer at a time. It also means I have something else to talk to you about in future weeks! So to this point we have devised an experiment with totally bullet proof logic which says the absolute minimum number of times we will see agreement between the two detectors is 5/9 – so 5 out of 9. Of course doing this experiment 9 times may well yield the incorrect result; probability can only make certainly and laws when it is done enough times to make it totally implausible that we are seeing a chance anomaly. If I did my experiment 9 billion times, and saw something that was not close to 5 billion in terms of the agreement between the detector we would know something is wrong.

The result of the experiment when performed, however, is that the probability is less than 5/9 – it is actually around 1/2 and you can do it as many times as you like. Our theory has failed us! Many different laboratories have done the experiment, the machinery has been tinkered with and the electrons have been fired again and again. Millions and millions of times and the only conclusion is that the upper bound on probability is broken. There are two candidates here – either we have made an assumption which has turned out to be wrong, or the preservation of locality is wrong. I appreciate my detector set up looked arbitrary, but you will either have to trust me that these arguments correspond to an acceptable simplification of real world phenomena (or indeed read into the detail). Many have tried and there has never been any suitable candidate to suggest something is wrong with the assumptions. To cut to the chase, some of the brightest minds in the world have been hoping to come up with something easier to understand to explain the phenomena and have not managed. Locality cannot, and is not preserved in the quantum world.

The result embodies the weird world of particle physics; not only are we impacting the properties of electrons by measuring it the electrons are impacting each other without even being in the same place. What can our little human minds even trust? I love it.

Next time I will be doing a brief run through of the quantum numbers, which I hope will be interesting in its own right and serve as a useful reference article to have on the site.


19 responses to “When 2 become 1

  1. How have you been and how’s your blog doing?
    I don’t know if you know that I moved my blog to a self-hosted platform. This has prevented me from connecting with WordPress bloggers like I used to. I would still like to remain in contact with your blog. Do you have an RSS feed I can subscribe to?
    May I add you to my mailing list? I send out one email per day with all the blogs posted for the day including blogging tips. You can also unsubscribe at any time if you feel you want to stop receiving the emails. If you are happy for me to subscribe you, please send me your email address.
    Also, I created a blogger tips group to connect with all my long last WordPress blogger friends, and to help all of us to learn from each other. I would love for you to share your knowledge in the group and connect with other bloggers. Here’s the link:
    Blogger Tips Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1601156120192716/)

    Finally, here’s a blog I thought you may find interesting:
    The Ripple Effect of Blogging

    Best regards,
    Founder of Healthy Living


    • Hi! All good here thank you – congratulations on making the transition to a self hosted platform you might be able to help me out actually… quite a few people have asked me for my RSS feed, and honestly – I don’t know what this is? It sounds like something I should have! Please feel free to add me to the list, blogging tips are always appreciated to help grow the site – my email is joseph@rationalisingtheuniverse.org. Thank you very much for your visit and all the info!



  2. One of the most interesting reads I’ve had in a long while! Will definitely continue reading your posts – can you recommend any books of similar genre? I’ve read brief history of time, the grand design, how to teach quantum physics to your dog, but I’d love to discover more!
    Again – great post!


    • Thank you very much! I am glad you enjoyed the post very much. If you are looking for a good readable account of modern physics (particle) these two are invaluable:
      The Particle at the End of the Universe and Dreams Of A Final Theory. I would also recommend Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos if you have not already read it – in my view a superior book to The Elegant Universe. Assuming you have no formal background, if you are looking to make the transition into studying Physics Susskind’s The Theoretical Minimum is a good starting point, but I will warn you sometimes I find him a little confusing even if I do know the subject!

      If you decide that


  3. What I am about to ask is out of curiosity since I am ignorant. I have read that photons are more like signals than particles, and if that were true; would it not be that the splitting of photons be the result of replicating a signal through the medium?


    • A very interesting question indeed – but the subtlety lies in the understanding of light. At the most fundamental level, light is comprised of particles (photons). There is no escaping that fact – as was described my Einstein in the photoelectric effect, along with many others. There is however the added complexity that whilst light most certainly is comprised of particles it can and does behave like a wave – as demonstrated in many different ways (and of course you can assign a frequency and a wavelength to light – it is an electromagnetic wave). This is where the subtlety lies in defining light as both a wave and a particle, the so-called wave-particle duality. Now you see you need to ask yourself if you are splitting a beam of photons, in which case it is much like splitting a signal, or if you are trying to split a single particle – which is of course different. Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: When 2 become 1 – Aheadguide·

    • Thank you very much! I totally agree quantum is the most interesting thing in science for me, I plan to focus my attention on quantum phenomena and maybe some of the classical mechanics that you need in order to tackle quantum problems. I am glad it makes sense to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have read the description of the eectron experiment several times and an still unsure of what you mean by aiming the electron pairs at a target and varying the emitters and the targets. Are you referring to the double slit ezperiment? And do you mean by a 1 or a 0 do you mean the electron is either detected or not detected? And somehow in there I get the feeling the electron is partially detected which makes no sense to me.

    Anyway, to go back to the generality, once you have the two particles entangled and know that one particle is always the opposit of the other, can you change the state of the particle you have in hand and thereby know the distant particle also changed its state? I have read that this phenomenon cannot be used to transmit information so I am guessing you cannot change the state of the observed particle. Is this true?

    Beyond this, this destruction of the sense of separation of the entangled particles does have odd implications on the nature of space and time and you seem to say one must not explore these implications. I find this disturbing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jiisand, I think the confusion may come down to generalization to avoid over complication. The flesh it out a bit, what I am doing is placing two detectors in two distinct locations and firing a pair of electrons, one to each and taking readings. The basic premise is to measure some property about these two electrons and see if the two detectors agree or disagree. Now of course we have to be careful before we cry quantum entanglement – if I say measured the mass of the two electrons I would declare they are the same – and although a trivial example shows the need to separate things about the electrons which started the same, and measurements that are the same as a result of some phenomena. The aim of the game is to vary the experiment over and over until you have some good upper bound on the probability for the number of times your detectors will agree.

      The reason that I kep the explanation general is because there are actually many things you can measure to derive a testable probabilistic inequality. I am roughly describing spin here – the magnetic properties of the electron. In quantum mechanics for the electron you can get two spins – up and down, which is weird in itself but another story. Detectors that analyse spin are Stern-Gerlach analyzers. Now what we actually do when we measure the electrons spin is we measure in along a particular axis – so by taking the measurement we force the spin to be up or down on this particular axis. We have constructed a situation where we know the detectors should have the same spin for the electron 5/9 of the time but they do not. The reason is because of quantum entanglement – the fact that we have influenced one electron with the other. Clearly this is also an effect of measurement.

      In regard to changing of the state it is most certainly true that one changes the other, but you are quite right it cannot be used to transmit information. This is what is known as the no-communication theorem. There are many ways of explaining this and a lot of it relies on complex maths but there is a practical point worth highlighting. Continuing with our example, before I measure I cannot know if I got up or down. Equally you don’t know if I got up or down – you just know you have the opposite of me. So you see it is useless for you to try and communicate with me; firstly we need to measure at the same time and secondly all we can do is deduce the fact we have the opposite measurement. The measuring at the same time is the bit that kills it – I either need to send a message which nullifies the point of all this or I need to agree to measure at an exact time… but as we said before we still only know we have opposites.

      This is exciting!


      • I misunderstood the initial experiment. In other words it gauged the probability that a certain percentage of the electrons were entangled. I had presumed you knew which particular electrons were entangled or not.

        Insofar as communication is concerned it seems the timing of the manipulation of the observed state is critical which puzzles me. Presuming the two entangled particles are both under continuous observation a manipulation of up and down spin would be somehow recorded and the frequency of change could become a binary message when it was observed. This is so obvious I am surely way off track in my assumptions so my understandings of the procedures must be completely cockeyed.


  6. “Bell killed locality, and showed the universe was at odds with us.”
    And this why I love quantum physics so much. The quantum world is a rebel, and just loves smashing ‘reality’ before our very eyes. Great article.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s