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Sensemaker: Proving Einstein wrong

Sensemaker: Proving Einstein wrong

What just happened

Long stories short

  • US president Joe Biden said Putin was “not joking” about nuclear threats (more below).
  • The Nobel Peace Prize 2022 was awarded to human rights campaigners in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. 
  • Hate crime reporting to police in England and Wales increased by 26 per cent this year.

Proving Einstein wrong

There are times when it’s useful to know why a Nobel prize-winner won. This may be one of them. This week three quantum physicists won the Nobel physics prize for laying the groundwork for a quantum information revolution that could*

  • make it impossible to hide a nuclear submarine even in deep water;
  • crack all existing encryption systems and replace them with uncrackable ones;
  • accelerate Alzheimer’s drug development to the point where a cure is found;
  • produce designs for a new generation of fast-charging post-lithium EV batteries;
  • enable vastly better weather forecasts;
  • optimise the movement of fleets of driverless taxis so that customers don’t have to wait or get stuck in traffic;
  • model the entire universe down to the level of individual atoms. 

*Or not. As one of the winners noted recently, hype about quantum computing is liable to run ahead of reality because journalists don’t understand it and even specialist investors find it hard to “see clearly through the fog”. 

Alain Aspect of the Université Paris-Saclay shares the prize with John Clauser of California and Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna, for work done mainly decades ago to prove the existence and utility of quantum entanglement. This is the peculiarity of paired subatomic particles that seem to operate in lockstep even when light years apart. It baffled Einstein, who called it “spooky action at a distance” and could only account for it with “hidden variables” yet to be discovered.

Those hidden variables don’t exist. The spooky action does. This was the prize-winners’ insight – but it was more than an insight. They proved it in the lab.

A brief history of quantum entanglement:

1935: Einstein co-authors a paper pointing out what he sees as flaws in early quantum models.

1935: Erwin Schrödinger writes to Einstein positing a theory of entanglement to explain those flaws.

1964: John Bell, from Northern Ireland, devises a theoretical experiment to show that Einstein’s hidden variables don’t exist.

1972: Clauser performs that experiment with two beams of photons and a polariser. He shows it’s possible to polarise a photon and watch its pair – in the other beam – undergo exactly the same polarisation. He proves entanglement.

1982: Aspect conducts a more complex polarisation experiment to close a potential loophole in Bell’s experiment and confirm, as Professor Robert Young of Lancaster University puts it, that paired photons aren’t actually communicating with each other but really are “spookily linked”.

2022: Professor Ahmed Almheiri explains entanglement for mortals as “perhaps one of the weirdest aspects of our universe and arguably one of its most essential”. It turns out most subatomic particles “come in carefully arranged pairs, acting hand in hand as the glue that holds spacetime together.”

Zeilinger’s breakthrough has been to harness entanglement for quantum computing, which uses qubits that can exist in any number states rather than mere bits which can only switch between 0 and 1. 

Hurdles. Quantum computing still has no equivalent of RAM (random access memory) and faces huge manufacturing obstacles because much of it has to be done at close to absolute zero. It’s also hard to test new algorithms on quantum computers with conventional ones because the former are so much faster than the latter.

But still. The hope is that quantum computing is to 3D what conventional is to 2D. “It feels as though we’re at the tip of the iceberg,” says Young, who was inspired to get into the field by Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger. “In the 1960s it was easy to be impressed by computers and their potential, but [it’s] impossible to say where we are now with [this] technology.”

According to a new survey from the Arthur D Little consultancy 

  • at least $25 billion in investments in quantum computing have been lined up for the rest of this decade;
  • 50 major venture capital deals in the field were signed last year alone; and
  • 20 new quantum computer prototypes are expected to appear by 2030.

Not one of them is close to commercial production, but none would be more than an idea without the work of these three pioneers. 


Don’t quit!
The Great Resignation is enough of a thing for self-styled consultants to be charging American employers $15,000 a day to help them stop disenchanted workers upping sticks. The WSJ says anti “quiet quitting” gurus have hit pay dirt selling online and real-world advice on how to keep younger workers engaged when they are still reeling from the pandemic and, often, obsessed with what is and is not in their job description. Pay rises help, but so do workplace charitable schemes and regular zoom calls guided by – in one case – bespoke software at $99 per team per month. Nice work if you’re fed up with your current job. 


Porcelain nonsense 
On Saturday, Sebastian Durfee, 23, decided to “get boomers to freak out about a fake TikTok challenge”. He came up with the porcelain challenge: a fake idea that people were smashing plates and snorting the dust. His original video passed half a million views as videos warning people about this “new craze” started spreading on other social media platforms. TikTok blocked Durfee’s account within days, apparently as a result of the experiment (something Durfee says illustrates the “knee-jerk” panic the whole stunt was meant to criticise in the first place). He then made fake videos that appeared to show the challenge being reported on US news channels, to incite more online reaction. While his original video was removed, spin-off clips and posts are still online, with no warning that the whole thing was made up. “No one in this fake challenge was immune to the impulse to share,” says MIT Technology Review. We should try harder. 

Listen to this week’s SlowNewscast: Toxic: the making of Andrew Tate – how thousands of people profited from utilising TikTok’s algorithm to spread Andrew Tate’s videos and messages of hate. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Biden marijuana pardons
“It’s time that we right these wrongs” is how Joe Biden announced pardons for thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal laws, fulfilling a campaign pledge. He also ordered a review of sentencing guidelines, saying “it makes no sense” to classify marijuana alongside heroin and LSD. Some caveats: federal charges of simple possession are a small percentage of overall convictions; the NYT reports roughly 6,500 people were convicted between 1992-2021. The vast majority of cases are under state jurisdiction, where Biden’s only power is to urge governors to follow his lead. To remember: it’s some of his own wrongs that Biden is trying to “right”. He was key to the 1994 crime bill that increased incarceration for drug crimes. According to the ACLU, a black person in America is three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Dark ages
Britain faces rolling three-hour blackouts this winter in the “extreme” scenario of gas shortages and reduced imports from Europe, according to the National Grid. It’s planning to launch a voluntary scheme next month in response, offering households with smart meters more than £10 per day to cut their energy use at peak times. But there’s no government push to encourage people to use less energy: The Times reports that Liz Truss nixed plans for a £15 million information campaign to help people save up to £300 a year by lowering the temperature of boilers and turning off radiators in empty rooms as too interventionist. “The last thing you want to do is tell someone, you know, switch things off for the national need when it makes no difference to the national security position,” climate minister Graham Stuart told Sky News this morning. Truss insisted Britain has a “good supply” but refused to rule out blackouts, which partly explains why she’s in Prague discussing the energy crisis with France’s Macron (now definitely a “friend”) and other European leaders. 


Dictator’s jubilee
Vladimir Putin marks his 70th birthday today with his country losing ground in Ukraine and facing its eighth package of EU sanctions, including an oil price cap. As Ukraine’s military advances in the east of the country, it is picking up and reusing abandoned Russian weapons – Moscow is now the largest supplier of heavy weapons for Ukraine, says the Wall Street Journal. Members of his inner circle are even starting to criticise him directly, according to US reports based on leaked intelligence. But so far he is not backing down. “The Putinmobile has no reverse gear – and possibly no brakes,” says the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg. Biden says the world has not been this close to nuclear Armageddon since the Cuban missile crisis. “What is Putin’s off-ramp?” he asks, “Where does he find a way out?”. A lot hangs on the answer.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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