Artist’s interpretation of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Does Free Will Exist? Ancient Quasars May Hold the Clue.

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

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Do you believe in free will? Are people able to decide their own destinies, whether it’s on what continent they’ll live, who or if they’ll marry, or just where they’ll get lunch today? Or are we just the unwitting pawns of some greater cosmic mechanism at work, ticking away the seconds and steering everyone and everything toward an inevitable, predetermined fate?

Philosophical debates aside, MIT researchers are actually looking to move past this age-old argument in their experiments once and for all, using some of the most distant and brilliant objects in the Universe.

Rather than ponder the ancient musings of Plato and Aristotle, researchers at MIT were trying to determine how to get past a more recent conundrum in physics: Bell’s Theorem. Proposed by Irish physicist John Bell in 1964, the principle attempts to come to terms with the behavior of “entangled” quantum particles separated by great distances but somehow affected simultaneously and instantaneously by the measurement of one or the other — previously referred to by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance.”

The problem with such spookiness in the quantum universe is that it seems to violate some very basic tenets of what we know about the macroscopic universe, such as information traveling faster than light. (A big no-no in physics.)

(Note: actual information is not transferred via quantum entanglement, but rather it’s the transfer of state between particles that can occur at thousands of times the speed of light.)

Read more: Spooky Experiment on ISS Could Pioneer New Quantum Communications Network

Then again, testing against Bell’s Theorem has resulted in its own weirdness (even as quantum research goes.) While some of the intrinsic “loopholes” in Bell’s Theorem have been sealed up, one odd suggestion remains on the table: what if a quantum-induced absence of free will (i.e., hidden variables) is conspiring to affect how researchers calibrate their detectors and collect data, somehow steering them toward a conclusion biased against classical physics?

“It sounds creepy, but people realized that’s a logical possibility that hasn’t been closed yet,” said David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and senior lecturer in the Department of Physics at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “Before we make the leap to say the equations of quantum theory tell us the world is inescapably crazy and bizarre, have we closed every conceivable logical loophole, even if they may not seem plausible in the world we know today?”

What are Quasars

A color composite image of the quasar in HE0450-2958 obtained using the VISIR instrument on the Very Large Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: ESO

So in order to clear the air of any possible predestination by entangled interlopers, Kaiser and MIT postdoc Andrew Friedman, along with Jason Gallicchio of the University of Chicago, propose to look into the distant, early Universe for sufficiently unprejudiced parties: ancient quasars that have never, ever been in contact.

According to a news release from MIT:

…an experiment would go something like this: A laboratory setup would consist of a particle generator, such as a radioactive atom that spits out pairs of entangled particles. One detector measures a property of particle A, while another detector does the same for particle B. A split second after the particles are generated, but just before the detectors are set, scientists would use telescopic observations of distant quasars to determine which properties each detector will measure of a respective particle. In other words, quasar A determines the settings to detect particle A, and quasar B sets the detector for particle B.

By using the light from objects that came into existence just shortly after the Big Bang to calibrate their detectors, the team hopes to remove any possibility of entanglement… and determine what’s really in charge of the Universe.

“I think it’s fair to say this is the final frontier, logically speaking, that stands between this enormously impressive accumulated experimental evidence and the interpretation of that evidence saying the world is governed by quantum mechanics,” said Kaiser.

Then again, perhaps that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do…

The paper was published this week in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Source: MIT Media Relations

Want to read more about the admittedly complex subject of entanglement and hidden variables (which may or may not really have anything to do with where you eat lunch?) Click here.

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Qev
Member
Qev
February 25, 2014 3:28 PM

Doesn’t this kind of assume the two quasars (or pre-quasar material or what have you) weren’t in causal contact before inflation?

Manu
Member
Manu
February 25, 2014 3:35 PM

“it violates some very basic tenets of what we know about the macroscopic universe, such as information traveling faster than light. ”

No. No information is transferred during the process. Entanglement cannot be used to transmit a signal instantaneously or faster than light.

weeasle
Member
weeasle
February 26, 2014 2:38 AM
To Manu/ Jason (and any scientists reading this : Never fully understood this distinction with quantum entanglement – For example, we are Team A and travelled a light year away and informed Team B that when they see the entangled particle change direction to clockwise this means Zero and anti-clockwise One, then we have potentially established a faster than light communications method, no? (assuming the spin states change instanteously when either Team A or B effect a change)…. I am guessing this FTL comms is not so because of something along the lines of (quoting wikipedia): ” this behavior gives rise to effects that can appear paradoxical: any measurement of a property of a particle can be seen… Read more »
Richard Kirk
Member
Richard Kirk
February 26, 2014 7:58 AM
Okay, here’s a go… Suppose you have some atomic process that outputs two photons. If that is all it emits then the two photons will have the same polarization so the total electrical states before and after the decay are balanced. But we do not yet know what one of these polarization states is. The right-hand photon goes through a horizontal polarizer and into a detector. We now know the polarization of this photon because it got through the polarizer, so we can infer the polarization of the other photon.We know if someone else was looking at the left hand-photon then they would detect it with a horizontal polarizer; they would not detect it with a vertical polarizer;… Read more »
weeasle
Member
weeasle
February 26, 2014 6:54 PM

Thanks for the example and explanation Richard – I sure could have used the help of those Elves when I studied math in school smile

Manu
Member
Manu
February 26, 2014 11:10 AM
To try to put it simply: you can’t “see the entangled particle change direction”, because the entanglement only holds as long as the particles are not observed. Observation of one of them, once, breaks it down forever. Consequently there is no ‘change’ you can effect and transfer, there’s only ‘observation’ (although this may not have exactly the same meaning in the quantum world). The entangled particles in both spacecraft need to be kept hidden at all times until their one and only use. What is being violated however is the ‘principle of locality’ (see wikipedia). The point of the article here (and the ‘free will’ debate) is there seem to be far-fetched but annoying ‘loopholes’ in all experiments… Read more »
weeasle
Member
weeasle
February 26, 2014 6:57 PM

Thank you Manu for the concise explanation – it makes sense now – I vaguely remembered about entanglement breaking upon observation.. It all starts to fit now.. I would love to hear more about this experiment and ones like this – I think most people find the inner workings of the universe’s natural laws fascinating and it is refreshing when science brings us non-physicists new understandings..

mewo
Member
mewo
February 25, 2014 9:48 PM

To answer the first question in the article: Yes, I do.

Gozlemci
Member
February 26, 2014 2:04 AM

Is it an estimation, or, is there any scientific research that can support this:
” … but rather it’s the transfer of state between particles that can occur at thousands of times the speed of light….”

Manu
Member
Manu
February 26, 2014 11:14 AM

There have been many experiments, see these wikipedia pages: Bell test experiments, Quantum teleportation. Also above comments.

pworth1971
Member
pworth1971
February 26, 2014 1:39 PM
Couple of issues with this post. Firstly Aristotle and Plato had very little to say on the notion of free will and how one makes the leap from the closing of (the final) loophole in Bell’s Theorem to establishing whether or not free will exists is pretty much beyond me and seemingly pretty far fetched at best. Secondly, quantum entanglement doesn’t necessarily imply that there exists action at a distance that violates classical physics premise of the speed of light, i.e. there isn’t necessarily communication going on. It is the aspect of correlation, which MAY imply communication, that lies at the heart of the conflict between classical physics and quantum mechanics. The issue is one of whether or… Read more »
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