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Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics Review

Book By Amir Aczel

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Most people with a smattering of scientific knowledge know this critical speed limit. They may even know that it is a necessary rule in Einstein’s reworking of Newton’s universe.

Nothing can break this speed limit because as something gets close to the speed of light its mass begins to increase. As its mass increases the amount of energy required to increase its speed rockets upwards towards infinity and, at the edge of the speed of light there is simply not enough energy in the universe to accelerate the infinitely massive object over the light speed limit.

Up until 1935, this notion of locality, of a speed limit, fit observed phenomena and all of the thought experiments the world’s best physicists could come up with. By 1935, the action and Nobel Prizes in theoretical physics had shifted away from Einstein’s relativity to the weird world of quantum theory.

Quantum theorist Niels Bohr, famously remarked “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Albert Einstein for one was shocked to discover that quantum theory implied what Erwin Schrödinger, of popular dead/not dead cat fame, referred to as “entanglement”. Einstein wrote a hugely influential and very controversial paper suggesting any theory which implied entanglement had to be incomplete. He saw entanglement as implying action at a distance and simply too weird to exist in Nature. (“Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, everytime that happens it is a catastrophe.” wrote Wolfgang Pauli.)

Einstein was wrong. Nature really is that weird.

Amir Aczel is a mathematics professor with a talent for taking really complicated bits of mathematics and physics and trying to make them intelligible to interested lay people. His very successful Fermat’s Last Theorem proved even esoteric issues in mathematics can make compelling reading. With Entanglement Aczel takes a huge risk: simply explaining what physicists mean by “entanglement” is enough to make your head hurt. But here goes, I quote Aczel,

“For example, two photons emitted from the same atom as its electron descends down two energy levels are entangled. (Energy levels are associated with the orbit of an electron of an atom.) While neither flies off in a definite direction, the pair will always be found on opposite sides of the atom. And such photons, produced in a way which links them together, remain intertwined forever. Once one is changed, its twin – wherever it may be in the universe—will change instantaneously.”

To Einstein instantaneous change across the universe was absurd. It had to be wrong because it violated the one essential principle his theory of special relativity required: nothing could travel faster than light.

The direct implication of quantum theory was that something instantaneously changes the state of one entangled photon to exact state of the other even if the other was a billion miles away. This “spooky action at a distance” which troubled Einstein.

As Aczel details, Einstein’s error gave rise to a series of mathematical speculations and then physical experiments to determine if the light speed limit or entanglement were right. The critical theoretical work was done by John Bell, a Belfast born particle physicist whose interest in quantum theory was more or less a hobby. Bell recognized the predictions of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s speed limit could not both be true and suggested an elegant mathematical construct which could, in principle, be tested experimentally to find out which was right. Aczel describes “Bell’s inequalities” but the real action lay in the experiments.

To test the reality of entanglement meant, in outline, creating entangled entities, splitting them and then changing the state of one part of the entity and seeing if it effected the state of the other part.  But the experiments also had to ensure that there could be no local, sub light “chatter” as between the various pieces of the experimental apparatus. In the early 1970’s researchers began to build apparatus which definitely confirmed that quantum mechanics are “non-local”, that information is somehow passed faster than light could travel. But these experiments, while suggestive, were not utterly conclusive. And if you want to prove Einstein’s speed limit is wrong you need knock down evidence.

As a graduate student Alain Aspect, performed three experiments using lasers to “pump” calcium atoms so that they gave off a steady source of pairs of entangled photons. Aspect’s apparatus changed the polarity of one photon and detected the instantaneous change in the other. And, using a switch which could alter the state of a polarizer in less than 43 nanoseconds, Aspect was able to change the apparatus while the photons were in their 13 meter flight. Each of Aspect’s experiments provided rigorous confirmation that entanglement was real and that there was no purely “local”, that is sub-light speed, phenomena, hidden variable or signal which could account for the instantaneous transformation.

In the early 1990’s a Swiss scientist, Nicholas Gisin, arranged what stands as the final confirmation of the reality of entanglement and thus action at a distance. He set up an experiment using a sixteen kilometer fiber-optical cable. On this apparatus a signal from one photon to another informing it of its state would have to travel 10 million times the speed of light. Which means it is now certain entangled photons are not communicating with each other. Instead, paradoxically, they are simply in touch.

This is where my brain began to sweat hard. Because the implication of the entanglement experiments is not only that the Einsteinian light-speed limit is void but that the entire notion of physical separation is a fiction. Or at least I think that is what the experiments imply.

To a degree Aczel is defeated by the sheer oddness of the material he is dealing with. Defeated by the fact the concept of entanglement does reckless damage to our day to day sense of how things work. Like Einstein we tend to believe that what we see and what we can measure is real. But at the quantum mechanical level measurement is voided by the uncertainty principle: merely by looking we change the outcome.

Reading Entanglement I kept thinking I actually understood the concepts only to realize, a page or two later, that I had entirely missed the point. This is not Aczel’s fault. He has written without diluting the truly bizarre and unintuitive implications of quantum theory generally and the weird facts of entanglement in particular. It is a book which I’ll keep rereading and referring to for a long time; but I doubt I will ever actually accept this strange probalistic world.

I console myself knowing Einstein didn’t accept entanglement either – and he could do the math.

You can buy the book HERE which is available in Hardcover and Audiobook version.

The Killers Within Review

The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug Resistant Bacteria

Book by Michael Shnayerson and Mark J. Plotkin

This is a good book to read now especially with the current coronavirus that is spreading across the globe.

It was front page news when drug resistant bacteria invaded BC Childrens Hospital’s intensive care nursery. But the hundreds of thousands of drug resistant staph infections which occur annually in hospitals throughout the world never make it into the paper. Yet these infections can make routine surgery and hospital stays dangerous and unpredictable one patient at a time.

For three and a half billion years bacteria have been adapting to unforgiving environments ranging from our stomachs to boiling hot outflows miles under the ocean. Antibiotics have been used for a little more than sixty years. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are disappointing and frightening; but the resistance is not surprising.

The Killers Within is a well researched, engagingly written book detailing the worldwide rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria in hospitals and in the community. The rapid evolution of  toxic bacteria –Streptococcus pneumoniae, Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus among others – is a deadly but fascinating tale of adaptation.

Twenty years ago infections like staph were routinely eliminated with inexpensive, very effective, antibiotics. Now many of these infections are multi-drug resistant and, if they can be beaten at all, require new, expensive and often toxic drugs. At least 40,000 Americans die each year as a result of drug resistant bacterial infections. That number is growing.

Over prescription of antibiotics, patients’ failure to follow the full course of antibiotics prescribed, the use of antibiotics as “growth promoters” in the cattle, swine and poultry industries have all contributed to resistance. Resistant strains spread in hospitals because health care workers don’t wash their hands between patients or because the bugs survive on not quite sterile instruments, catheters and bed sheets.

The immediate causes of drug resistant bacteria are important but The Killers Within makes a larger point. Bacteria’s ability to rapidly evolve under pressure suggests that antibiotics’ astonishing success over the last sixty years has been illusorily.

The discovery of penicillin followed by the broad range of antibiotics created an evolutionary bottleneck for  bacteria populations. For a few years a drug would kill almost all the target bacteria. The key word here being “almost”: with every drug a few bacteria survive. These survivors are slightly more resistant to the drug and this slightly resistant population is the only one which breeds.

Bacteria generations are measured in hours so evolution is fast. Drug resistance rises and is encoded genetically. In a single decade “bacteria reproduced 50,000 times, trying each time, in some soulless but utterly determined, Darwinian way, to adapt in order to prevail.”

Drug strategies which did not take bacteria’s rapid evolution into account were doomed to fail eventually.

In Nature bacteria do not multiply unchecked. There are a variety of natural anti-bacterials: frog peptides and Komodo dragon saliva kill bacteria very efficiently. Synthesizing these natural anti-bacterials promises highly effective anti-bacterials in the future. Vaccines, naturally occurring or genetically engineered also hold some future hope.

For the moment, the authors see the most promising approach as weird little viruses called phages. Every bacteria seems to have a phage which has co-evolved specifically to feast on that particular bacteria. Phages inject their DNA directly into a bacteria. This DNA takes charge of the bacteria and forces it to make more phages instead of more bacteria before it dies. These daughter phages go and colonize more bacteria.

The anti bacterial action of phages was discovered by a French Canadian named Felix d’Herelle around 1915. He published his results in 1917 to the amazement and frank incredulity of the scientific world.

d’Herelle’s work was largely ignored in the West, particularly after the discovery of penicillin, but continued behind the Iron Curtain at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia. Hundreds of different bacterial strains had their phages discovered and catalogued at the Institute which is still in operation.

Phages offer a more sophisticated ecological strategy for bacteria control. They only have the capacity to commandeer their particular bacterial cell and are unable to attack other species of bacteria or human cells. And phages are likely to mutate right along with bacteria as they have been doing through the whole of geologic time.

For the last sixty years we have used a single approach to anti-bacterial warfare: antibiotics.  The Killers Within details the tragic but inevitable failure of that approach. Antibiotics have bought us is a little time to invent new ways of dealing with the ecology of bacteria. But that time is fast running out.

Four Best Books About Food

You do not have to be a foodie to admire the sheer exuberance and delight chef Jeremiah Tower brings to writing his own extraordinary life. Yes, it does help to know who James Beard is and it also helps to know that the epicenter of the American Culinary Revolution was a small restaurant in Berkeley California called Chez Panisse.

California Dish

California Dish (Free Press hc 320 pp $39.50) will tell you all this and a great deal more about wonderful food and extraordinary wine; but its real story is about a man who fell in love with food as a child and somehow made a life which let him deeply indulge his childish passion. Tower is a man who can write about the famous expert on French food, Richard Olney, “After we got the sex part of our affair out of the way, we got down to business. The long winter nights were filled with single-malt whiskey, old French music-hall records, and talks about food.”

This is a book of menus and people and the very freshest ingredients, lightly cooked and served in original ways. “The squab’s breast meat was served in its juices, the leg and thigh meat chopped into a puree with sage leaves and served on grilled garlic toasts.” Grills, salsas, the re-invention of the pizza: Tower was in on all of it.

Tower grew up a largely neglected child of a rich, sometimes abusive American father and an artistic, alcoholic beauty who lived in Jean Patou suits and grubby gardening clothes. Tower’s childhood consisted of eating his way through some of the best restaurants in the world and being kicked out of school. His parents stayed in grand hotels and room service became Tower’s hobby. In his early teens he often took over the kitchen from his over martinied mother and finished dinners for dozens of guests. At Harvard he and a friend had six course dinner parties finishing with 1884 Maderia and fresh off the plant marijuana.

Tower’s break as a chef came in the early years at Chez Panisse where he ran the kitchen for which, as he points out, Alice Waters, took the credit. But he left Panisse and rebuilt the Sante Fe Bar and Grill for investors before opening his own Stars in San Francisco. And then on to Hong Kong and Singapore.

What sets California Dish miles above most chef’s memoirs is Tower’s tremendously humane and beautifully educated sense of style, taste and simplicity. He can embrace Eastern cooking styles, high French cuisine and the very best America can offer. His writing is elegant and perfectly evocative of the tastes and places which have formed his palette and his life.

Slow Food, The Case for Taste

Where Tower mixes fresh ingredients, rare wines, the discovery of America as a culinary region and celebrity dining, Carlo Petrini celebrates the pleasures of the kitchen table and the little café. Slow Food, The Case for Taste, (Columbia University Press, hc 155 pp $__.__)is as much a polemic as a discussion of food.

With its snail logo, Slow Food is as much a social movement as a particular cuisine. It began in 1986 when Petrini, aghast at McDonald’s plans to build near the Spanish Steps in Rome, armed himself and some friends with bowls of penne and protested the bland, the quick and the homogenous.

In a world driven by price and standardization, fast food – the lump of meat on a bun with tasteless lettuce, a squirt of special sauce served in a styrofoam box – quickly becomes the default cuisine. A cuisine which drives local producers, market gardeners, cheese makers and the little “ma and pa” restaurants out of business. Taste is overwhelmed.

Slow Food begins with the idea that taste matters: tiny tastes, specific tastes and tastes of the territory. For example, Slow Food wanted people to know and appreciate that while there are 1,300,000 rounds of Asiago cheese produced in Italy annually, there is an “especially good kind that is produced in small quantities: Asiago Stravecchio.” There are only 10,000 or so rounds of this long aged cheese made a year; but Slow Food’s logic is that if people know about the cheese they will buy it, which will create demand and ensure more is produced.

Slow Food bogs down in more organizational detail than is really needed to drive home its simple message: by paying a little more for food which actually tastes good we are ensuring tasty food will continue to be produced. Slow Food, the book and the movement, are a weird marriage of ecology, aging socialists, gastronomy and pleasure invented to counter the flattening of flavour and the eclipse of enjoyment created by purely commercial cuisine.

Mr. Chilehead

Mr. Chilehead (ECW Press, sc, 222pp, $19.95) is one demented puppy operating on the fringes of gastronomic Hell. There is nothing tiny about his tastes. Alter ego to writer James D. Campbell, Mr. C takes his pleasure in the sweet pain of really hot chillies, sauces and dishes. He goes to Mardi Gras and Sante Fe in search of the burn. Mr. C wants the sting, the heat, the third degree burns inflicted by the hot sauces of what he calls Painland.

Like most forms of masochism, eating scorching hot condiments has evolved its own strange rituals, fetish items and language. Mr. C explores them all and, along the way, provides a comprehensive guide to the painfully hot for the novice. There are a lot of novices. In 1992 salsa replaced ketchup as America’s number one condiment.

Salsa, even killer hot salsa, is really for wussies. Mr. C explains that hot sauce fetishists have their own scale for ranking heat: Scoville units. Those jalapenos on your nachos, 4500 Scovilles, Tabasco sauce 30-50,000 units; but for real pain you start at habanero chile at 350 – 500,000 units. Sort of like eating pepper spray (made from the sissy cayenne weighing in at a mere 40,000 Scovilles.)

Mr. Chilehead is well written in places but there is a distinct tang of filler. 20 pages of “You know you’re a chilehead if….” are 19 too many for anyone who isn’t. Many of the chapters work as magazine pieces but the book as a whole is a text for the converted.

A Slice of Life

A Slice of Life (The Overlook Press, hc, 400 pp, $40.00) is just what its subtitle says it is: Contemporary Writers on Food. From Umberto Eco’s reflections on the sheer physical impossibility of eating on airplanes to historian Rachel Laudan pouring cold water on “Slow Food” and the rest of the Culinary Luddites who long for a past which never was, A Slice of Life is a glorious sampler of food writing broadly imagined.

Its editor, Bonnie Marranca, wants to capture glimpses of what she calls “geographies of taste”. Readers have the appetizing choice of reading M. F. K. Fisher writing about a wanton woman’s menu or Isabel Allende’s perfectly discursive contemplation of a naked chef, “There are few virtues a man can possess more erotic than culinary skill.”

While a few of the pieces are over egged with sentimental memories of mother’s chipped blue bowl, most are crisply written reminders of taste and place. Russell Baker leavens the loaf with a perfect pastiche of pretentious food writing while describing his cuisine du depression.

I am not sure what Jeremiah Tower would make of Russell Baker’s “beans in bacon grease”. I am sure that anyone who loves food will enjoy grazing in the company of writers who can put that love into work.

Better Than Life Book Review

A book by Margaret Gunning

At ninety Min Connar is more mischievous than elderly. Cared for by her less than ambitious, ex-alcoholic, son Aubrey, Min regularly pretends to die and is planning the biggest birthday celebration cum reunion the little Ontario town of Harmon has ever seen. She’s survived the Depression, her kids and now the late 1960’s and she owes herself a party.

Where many first novels are about growing up and getting out of small towns as fast as possible, Margaret Gunning’s Better than Life is about the sort of people who stay. They led everyday lives, are convinced that the Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in the Centennial Year is simply the best thing in the world and they gossip.

Min’s children give the town lots to gossip about.

Statuesque Eileen Connar, knocked up by the town’s only writer and married off to one of its two nancy boys to hide the scandal, now on her fifth marriage with her eleventh child up the spout herself has steeled herself to the buzz of disapproval which greets her in every store and café. Min’s twins, Dwight and Barlow, live as refugees in Hogansville just down the road, married to sisters. They had, or so the story goes, “been driven out of Harmon by that awful sot of a brother, that Aubrey who wasn’t even married.”

Gunning gets the warm glaze of gossip as it winds around Harmon from Guillaume’ Belgian bakery, “social nucleus of the entire community which wasn’t really Belgian at all.” It’s the same gossip Min has been hearing all her life.

The mainspring of Better than Life is the arrival in Harmon of a rather fine young man named Bob who, while a good deal cleaner than the hippy kids who have taken over the town park, and a hard worker to boot, is very much a child of the sixties. Spouting Kilhal Gibran, Bob is charming, into macrobiotics and just charismatic enough. The Reverend Ninian Sanderson over at St. Andrew’s United cautions his congregation to beware false prophets. Just as he is telling them to “Rigorously question the motives of anyone claiming to have holy powers…” in walks Bob. The congregation is moved to tears by a perfectly ordinary hymn. As Gunning puts it, “They had so wanted to believe in Bob. A distant, too-exalted Christ was so hard to hold on to.”

While Bob is a remarkable carpenter and shakes some of the town people out of their ruts with a combination of common sense and the sense of possibility, he is not the Son of God. He has enough troubles of his own.

Gunning, perhaps as a result of having reviewed literally hundreds of Canadian novels, has a resolutely light touch. She gets on with telling her story without a great deal of authorial meditation or flowery description. Which is exactly right for the rich roster of characters who have to chose between the delights of Min’s ninetieth birthday reunion and the revived Horgie Days down in Hogansville, replete with Bobby Gimby (“One little, two little, three Canadians” was beaten into my innocent elementary school head as surely as it was into Gunning’s”).

Better than Life is a delightful celebration of acceptance. Min’s 90th is full of surprises, not all of them pleasant, but all drawn from the first things of a life well lived: children, marriage, love and redemption. Min sits on her throne, “as heavily made up as Barbara Cartland”, presiding over the Connar clan, watching ancient feuds being replaced with new ones and knowing the dance of life will continue long after she’s gone.

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