Friday, December 06, 2013

ER-EPR and distortions in the media

Lots of news outlets wrote stories about the link between the entanglement and wormholes, an insight that I find important, fascinating, and almost certainly true: TRF June 2013. But my excitement about the insight doesn't imply a satisfaction with the newspaper articles because they're just way too misleading.

The first question you should ask is: Why now? Why didn't they write a lot about the ER-EPR correspondence when it was first published? The answer is that the Maldacena-Susskind preprint from June 2013 hasn't appeared in any classical journal. The journalists aren't able to follow preprints on the arXiv, they have no knowledgeable informers, and they are probably ignorant about the importance of names such as Maldacena and Susskind, too. So they missed it. They almost always do.

Let me analyze an article in some detail and clarify why I consider pretty much every sentence misleading. It could be done with many newspaper articles but I will pick International Business Time, a newspaper I have mostly no trouble with. It's useful. A young writer named Charles Poladian wrote a story
What Is Quantum Entanglement? The 'Spooky Action' Of Quantum Mechanics Linked To Wormholes
for IBT. What's wrong with that?

First of all, the title is sort of fine. Entanglement isn't really spooky but the term "spooky action" is written in the quotes which is fine because it's a quote by Albert Einstein. In his efforts to undermine quantum mechanics, he invented a catchy name for the quantum entanglement, a "spooky action at a distance", and it has become a synonym of "quantum entanglement".

There is nothing spooky about the quantum entanglement and there is no action at a distance in it, either, but it is Einstein's fault and not Poladian's fault that this phrase is misleading. Incidentally, the "spooky action at a distance" sounds even spookier in the German original: "spukhafte Fernwirkung". In this context, I can't avoid recalling the hilarious videos comparing German to other languages.

That was the title (I won't count it as a "sentence") but let's look at the body of the article:
Quantum entanglement is a rather weird theory of quantum mechanics, and new research is only adding more strangeness to the equation.
One may say that it's a bizarre sentence for subtle reasons but these subtle reasons are enough to see that the author can't possibly know what he is talking about.

Quantum entanglement isn't really a "theory"; it is a "phenomenon" or, more precisely, a "feature" of quantum mechanics. The comment that quantum entanglement is a "theory of quantum mechanics" suggests that it is something based "on top of quantum mechanics", something that extends it or specifies it. But this ain't the case. Quantum entanglement is a completely universal feature of quantum mechanics, of any particular theory obeying the postulates of quantum mechanics (as long as it has at least two observables).

It is or isn't weird depending on how much we have gotten used to quantum mechanics as the right theory of the Universe but I won't criticize this adjective too much.

The second part of the sentence is highly problematic, too. The ER-EPR correspondence actually claims that two strange concepts in physics are related – well, they are the same – so it means that they are not independent anymore. There is only one independent strange thing if the correspondence is right and because one is smaller than two, the insight makes physics "less strange", not "more strange".

In fact, every advance in physics (or science) that represents a progress "reduces" the amount of strangeness in physics, when looked at from the right perspective, otherwise we wouldn't think it represents a progress. In this sense, the author can't understand the logic of science and its progress in general.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stony Brook University and the University of Washington believe quantum entanglement may be linked to wormholes.
This second sentence is a spectacular misattribution of the insight. The insight mentioned in the sentence is from the researchers at Princeton and Stanford (who were exploiting the infrastructure of insights and feelings found by others as well), not these three universities.

Otherwise I honestly don't know why is Stony Brook included in this particular sentence. (TRF guest blogger) Andreas Karch is from UWash: that's OK. But Kristan Jensen is from University of Victoria, Canada. Their work – and its followup by Julian Sonner of MIT (who only says that by analytic continuation, the bulk dual may be interpreted as the tunneling instantons, something that was understood already by Susskind and Maldacena, I would say, certainly in the general case) – are just building upon the key insights that are being completely marginalized in this news article.
Wormholes may be the one aspect of theoretical physics most people are familiar with, a hypothetical "shortcut" through space and time.
Well, it's almost OK except that this sentence – and the whole article – overlooks that they have to be non-traversable wormholes in order to be related to the entanglement. So they can't really be used as a shortcut to get elsewhere (to a normal region elsewhere in the Universe). So there's a big problem with the reference to the wormholes from the science-fiction movies but the following sentence is worse.
Quantum entanglement is the hypothetical state of two linked particles.
Entanglement doesn't have to relate just two "particles" – it may be any two subsystems of a physical system. But what's much worse about this sentence is the word "hypothetical". There is nothing "hypothetical" about entanglement. Entanglement is as established a fact as the round shape of the Earth.
These entangled particles occupy multiple states of being at once, notes MIT.
LOL, so MIT "notes" such things (it's some news server at the MIT so it's being noted not so much by MIT as by some popular writers over there who are comparably confused as the author of this very newspaper story); MIT is made look completely stupid because its "identity" is given by a popular writer rather than its actual experts (a typical tail wagging the dog).

An entangled state is not "multiple states at once", it is exactly one (pure) state of a type that wouldn't be allowed in classical physics. But even if you called superpositions "multiple states of being at once", entangled states in quantum mechanics are no more "multiple" than the generic quantum states of any object (including one particle) according to quantum mechanics. So the whole message attempting to convince the reader that the entangled states are something "new relatively to quantum mechanics" is completely wrong.
For examples, both particles could be spinning clockwise and counterclockwise, but once researchers observe one particle, their state becomes defined.
Isn't it just one example? Why "examples"?

Otherwise, this sentence is mostly OK when we only demand "validity". But it's not appreciated by the writer that with some positivist attitude to physics, it is a tautology. Of course that the state of a particle becomes "defined" after the measurement. That's what the word "measurement" means. The measurement is something that determines the value of an observable – in other words, that makes the observable "defined".
The observed particle is spinning clockwise and the entangled particle will be observed to spin counterclockwise. If the observed particle's state changes, if it now spins counterclockwise, the entangled particle will change almost simultaneously.
The first sentence is just meant to mention an example of the correlation (in the most typical examples of entangled pairs that have spin 0 and whose members have nonzero momentum, the helicities will actually be the same, not opposite, for both particles because the signs of the angular momenta will be the opposite due to the opposite momenta). But the following sentence shows that the author just doesn't get what quantum entanglement is. If one particle's spin becomes "defined", the other one is "defined" (and equal to the value determined by the correlation) immediately, and not just "almost simultaneously". There is no delay whatsoever.

Moreover, the other particle is not "changing" in any materialist sense. Its state was uncertain – "undefined" – and it becomes "defined" if and when we measure the spin (the spin of the first particle is enough because they are entangled i.e. correlated). Again, this comment is true even for a single particle: the measurement doesn't "change" the physical system, it just makes some properties of it "defined" and the new "defined" state is the one that we must treat as a fact while making new predictions.
Interestingly, this communication happens faster than the speed of light, hence the "spooky" part, according to the University of Washington.
Again, a popular writer at a university is considered to "be" the university (he or she apparently has greater credentials to represent the university than Andreas Karch, the physicist, himself). Incidentally, the description "therefore spooky" would be wrong even for Einstein's (demagogic) justification of the phrase. The (apparent) superluminal speed is reflected in the words "at a distance" in the phrase; the word "spooky" referred to the fact that the (non-existing) communication is taking place even though we don't see any messengers that would transmit the information.

In the real world, the sentence is wrong because there is no "communication". This claim is valid even in the wormhole picture because the entanglement only links the interiors of the two black holes and because nothing can get out of the black holes, the two exterior regions can't "communicate" superluminally. So because there is no "communication", it makes no sense to talk about its speed. One can't transfer any information by exploiting quantum entanglement.
The new studies build off previous studies of wormholes, in which researchers suggested wormholes may be responsible for the communication between entangled particles. MIT cites a study, led by Juan Maldacena, from Princeton University, and Leonard Susskind, from Stanford University, that suggests that when two entangled black holes are separated they form a wormhole.
This is truly bizarre because so far, the writer has only given a breathtakingly distorted popular view of the Maldacena-Susskind paradigm itself. He hasn't even attempted to offer a single word that would go "beyond" Maldacena-Susskind and discuss the followups. Otherwise Susskind and Maldacena didn't "lead" this study; they are the only two authors.
The MIT researchers, led by Julian Sonner, applied this theory to the creation of quarks, an elementary particle.
Similarly, there is no "team" led by Julian Sonner; Sonner is the only author. Less importantly, I guess that the plural "quarks" shouldn't be followed by the singular "elementary particles" but English is not my native language.
According to Sonner's research, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, the creation of entangled quarks leads to the creation of a wormhole.
Again, this is a clear misattribution. At this general level, the insight about the Euclidean instanton as the creation of a wormhole is due to Maldacena and Susskind, see e.g. section 2.4.
The research is based on string theory, a theoretical framework that tries to resolve general relativity, things happening on a vast scale, with quantum mechanics, things happening on a very small scale.
I guess that "tries to resolve" should have been "reconciles".
Scientific American argues that, while it is interesting, the very theoretical nature of all of this puts a damper on the discovery.
A problem with this way of writing story is that most things that Scientific American writes these days is tendentious junk and this proposition is no exception. The "very theoretical nature" makes it important and far-reaching.
All of the discussion and conclusions are based on models and the holographic principle.
All of science is based on "models" in this general sense.

The ER-EPR correspondence doesn't "depend" on the holographic principle in any direct way. It's obviously compatible with the holographic principle but except for references, you won't even find the root "holograph" in the 48-page-long Maldacena-Susskind paper.

The quark-antiquark-pair examples in AdS/CFT obviously depend on the holographic principle because they're applications of the Maldacena-Susskind ER-EPR correspondence to the realm of the holographic AdS/CFT correspondence. But to use this fact as a "complaint" is as bizarre as a complaint that examples of Darwin's evolution involving animals depend on zoology. The comment is just totally stupid, especially as a would-be justification of the "damper put on the discovery".
As explained by Scientific American, the holographic principle "states that a quantum theory with gravity in a given space is equivalent to a quantum theory without gravity in a space with one less dimension that makes up the original space's boundary," leading to 3D projections without gravity that would be the same as 4D space with gravity.
In general, Scientific American's caricatures of modern science are pathetic enough but in this case, the definition of the holographic principle turned out to be fine. It's the exception – a sentence in Scientific American that isn't painfully wrong or misleading – and I will count this as the only OK sentence of Paladian's article.
Due to the very nature of black holes, where nothing can escape their pull, communication or travel is impossible.
Well, communication or travel is possible in one direction. What's bizarre about this sentence is its location, right after an explanation of the holographic principle. The role of this sentence would be understandable in the context where it is explained that neither quantum entanglement nor the non-traversable wormholes may be used for superluminal signalling but it's not here. The author copied some sentences but because he doesn't understand them, he permuted them so that the permutation doesn't make sense.
Andreas Karch of the University of Washington, whose work also was published in Physical Review Letters, says the findings indicate there are "two different mathematical machineries to go after the same physical process."
Well, that's nice but this general principle or meme – the existence of "dualities" – is a key insight of much of theoretical physics of the last 20 years and Andreas Karch hasn't really pioneered it. Although he has done lots of very valuable work, he has not pioneered particular major examples of these "dualities" such as the AdS/CFT or ER-EPR, either. So again, it's bizarre to write this general comment at this place and to attribute it in this way.
The researchers are excited by these findings as it could lead to the long-sought resolution between quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, such as particles being able to communicate faster than the speed of light.
They won't be able to communicate faster than light and Maldacena and Susskind who pioneered it already gave a full explanation why the superluminal communication is impossible in the wormhole description, too: it is because the wormholes are not traversable. The idea about the "need for some superluminal communication" is a misconception held by the incompetent folks and this misconception is surely not needed to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics in any way or sense.

If I haven't overlooked a sentence, I think that there has been one sentence (copied from a randomly acceptable sentence in Scientific American) in this article that was free of major distortions, misconceptions, or failures of logic. And I happen to think that one OK sentence is too little for a tolerable article.

I want to emphasize that Charles Paladian's article was picked somewhat randomly – most other articles about theoretical physics in the mass media suck comparably. The whole occupation of science writers has turned into a cesspool which is why Mr Paladian shouldn't take this criticism personally. He is just one example of the object we may find floating in a cesspool.

And that's the memo.

(Incidentally, Katia Moskvitch's story for the Science Magazine is much better and indeed, this is not the first thumbs-up for this writer you may find on my blog.)


  1. hi lubos,

    indeed, the IBT article was pretty bad.

    I suspect what happened here was the following. the ER-EPR papers of me/andreas and julian got published in PRL recently. this attracted media attention to ER-EPR from people who check PRL for new things but hadn't heard of the maldacena/susskind paper. we were contacted by a few of these, who for the most part wrote reasonable new articles. for instance, the one in science magazine ( correctly notes that the MS paper is the root of all of this.

    this IBT article, on the other hand, seems to be the result of a young writer who saw these articles, didn't understand them, but then tried to patch them together into his own creation. and of course the final result is abysmal.

    for my/andreas' part, we were just following up MS in one of the most obvious ways possible. of course, we also have some hopes that our setups can be used to better understand the MS claims. but we certainly haven't claimed any of the ER-EPR insights as our own, and instead consistently point people to MS and older papers.


  2. LOL Charles Poladian (and many science journalists and popular science writers in the mass media) has really no clue what he is writing about, not even about quantum mechanics ... ;-).

    This is the exactly same style of writing and more or less randomly putting not understood sentences (from wikipedia, other popular sources, etc), together I often observe on Astronomy SE (and Physics SE too sometimes) by people who are neither experts nor seriously trying to learn things at an at least slightly technical level from good (!) sources, but feel entitled to answer everything in a SE politically correct way anyway ... :-D.

    I sometimes even get the impression that such science writers think that they have to permute or "improve" some words or sentences in correct paragraphs they take from somewhere, to make them more "creative" from an artistic / linguistic point of view ... ;-P

    More seriously, what annoys me most about such things is the pompous attitude of many such writers to pretend speaking for yes, whole universities ;-) or even the whole theoretical physics community, while writing down nothing but confused crap at best and outright dishonest misleading attacks in the worst case. And the tragic thing is that all of the people who dont know about physics themself, take every word they write or say serious ... more serious than what real physicists, who know exactly what they are doing and talking about, have to say ... :-/

    I sometimes would prefer the popular media to shut up about theoretical / fundamental physics, if they can not guarantee a minimum quality and correctness of what they write or say about such topics ...

    End of rant ... :-)))

  3. Dear Kristan, I liked the Science article, too! It was written in my blog post after an update but before I saw your comment. ;-) Moskvitch seems like a good enough writer.

    Your explanation makes complete sense. Thanks for visiting this blog, by the way. You are on the white list. Have we ever met?

    Good luck not only to your research, LM

  4. Lubos, I unfortunately am one of these people who can't visualize this without thinking something spooky is going on. But, I am at least intelligent enough to pin point where I am going wrong, and your comments about the single particle help with this process.

    If we make a measurement on a single particle it's not changing in any physical sense is what you wrote. It's spin becomes defined. What does this word (defined) mean? I always thought this was synonymous with a physical change -- going from a superposition to a definite state is something physical. Wrong?

    Now, I'm trying to imagine what it could mean to go from an undefined state to a defined state if it isn't anything physical. So, I'm imagining two boxes with a left and right hand glove, one in each box, and scramble them up so I lose track which glove is in which box. I only know there is a (1/2) probability of left and (1/2) of right. I open one box, and discover say left, then the other box contains right with probability (1/2 -> 1). I can say it is defined. But this completely misses the point, because (and this is the key) when I open the box and find left, that tells me it was left all along, but this is not valid in quantum mechanics.

    So, if I measure a property (left) on a particle that was not defined prior to my measurement, hasn't something physical changed about the particle?

    I don't feel horrible about not being able to get this. I believe quantum mechanics is the biggest change in how we think about nature that humans have developed.

  5. Kurt Vonnegut sent his atmospheric scientist Bernard (silver iodide cloud seeding) to talk with Kip Throne for a way to seriously travel re The Sirens of Titan. Kip BS'd a wormhole, appearing as the "chronosynclastic infundibulum." The concept looked less and less crazy over time and publications. Now it is not silly, merely unphysical - though possibly not by a factor of 8.8×10^18 as for






  6. This is off topic, but I think the following link is interesting. . He says that with probability %1, some planets will collide before end of the sun. The probability here means that, he takes observed value of mars' semi-axis and takes ~ 2000 points around it (differs less than um ) and follows the evolution of these points. Most of them are ok, but some of them are really problematic, for example earth and venus can collide. Also other interesting things occur such that order of distances of planets from sun can change.

  7. Sorry, he changes initial value of mercury not mars. Also related there is an article of Scott Tremaine : .

  8. That video is ausgezeichnet ... The best. :-)

  9. Lubos, you wrote "and because two is smaller than one", but I think this is wrong.

  10. Stephen Paul KingDec 7, 2013, 5:43:00 AM

    Would you consider writing an article on quantum pseudo-telepathy?

  11. I enjoyed the video too, it was within my german vocabulary. But I want to point out that it is unfair. It juxtaposes the german language to latin derived languages.

    If it were not for the classical pretensions of scientists ( i.e. that they knew ancient greek and latin enough to name any new concept with greek or latin roots) greek would be equally dissonant to the english speaking ear , though english has a lot of common roots with german . ( my first german sentence: deutch und enlgish sind sehr ahnlich).

    Here are for fun the corresponding greek words to the first words, phonetically written.

    aeroplane aeroplano ( greek/latin roots)

    surprise ecplixi

    butterfly petalouda

    pen konthiloforos (commonly stilo)

    margaret margarita ( a ancient greek root)

    ambulance asthenoforo ( compound word like the german, carrying-the-sick)

    science epistimi (as in epistemological)

    As for hippopotamus it is a greek word that has two words combined, as the german : horse/river .

    I have found german in grammar and syntax very much like ancient greek, also in this joining of words to express new observations/meanings . In greek though the roots are blended to make the new word, while german joins them raw :).

  12. Haha, fixed, "one is smaller than two".

  13. I also support the German language in this way - and think that it is structurally and phonetically close to Czech, across the family borders.

    Well, we cut the long German words to pieces but the similarities arguably dominate.

  14. Dear Justin, one may feel things are spooky - it is an emotion. But science isn't about emotions. At the end, spookiness results from something's being unfamiliar or invisible. But when I does and looks at many experiments, the quantum behavior of Nature is as clear as the sky.

    I don't understand why you think that spin's becoming "defined" requires a "physical change".

    It's more like you have a computer program that says

    spin := undefined;
    do (something);
    spin: = +1/2;

    There was a change in the microprocessor - a register changed from "undefined" to "+1/2". But you can't prove that the spin "wasn't" +1/2 when it was undefined, shortly before it was defined to be +1/2. The value was just undefined. In fact, the probability it was +1/2 had to be nonzero, otherwise the value couldn't have been +1/2 afterwords.

    If you properly think about valid and invalid and meaningless propositions, you can't possibly encounter any of the wrong conclusions about "physical changes" etc. you are so desperately trying to believe. "Undefined" just means unknown, unknown to anyone, unknowable.

  15. I thought that this was meant as a funny sarcastic comment targetted at people who do not get what the ER-EPR correspondence is about at all ... ;-P

  16. There's a semi-apocryphal quotation from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), who is supposed to have said:

    I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.

    (There is a webpage -- in English -- that notes some of the variations that this quotation has undergone over the centuries at , with a link at the end to a much more in-depth discussion in a German scholarly work at .)

    The tradition of viewing the peoples and tribes between the Rhine and the Baltic with horrified fascination goes back at least to the Romans, who nonetheless shouldered their original White Man's Burden willingly and brought civilization to the barbarians at great cost to themselves. Indoor plumbing and athletic contests held in large stadia are some of the achievements that have survived to this day.

    Martin Luther, the great unifier of the German language, took pride in his "earthy" (read: inordinately fascinated with bowel movements) vocabulary. No less a figure than J.W. von Goethe said,

    Wenn man im Deutschen höflich ist, lügt man.

    (To be courteous in German is to lie.)

    And for the "philosopher-king" Fredrick there was no question that it was he who had to speak the language of his employee Voltaire and not the other way round.

    Yet somehow over the centuries refinement crept into German, in spite of itself. Then came the Nazis, who murdered a large portion of the cultured and educated, and after World War II due to the insidious influence of television, the language standardized to a stump-like remnant of its former richness.

    However, the infuriatingly complex and inconsistent grammar, with its illogical assignment of gender and the protoplasmic flexibility of word order and the attendant subtle shifts in meaning, still remain. At this point I would be remiss if I did not mention the German theoretical physicist who once told me in all earnestness that the complexity of German was what predisposed Planck, Einstein and Heisenberg to make their great discoveries. Apparently if you have mastered German (most Germans never do) then nothing in science can faze you!

    By the way, I have noticed how Greek-surnamed people seem to be over-represented among the authors of scientific papers who get favorable mention on TRF. Perhaps there is something to the notion that a tricky grammar trains your brain, after all. I remember in my Ancient Greek classes in high school, the aorist would drive me nuts!

  17. I know that German scholars learn ancient greek easily and are also able to speak modern greek much better than anglos.

    Complexity in language forces logic to the brain of the child, if it does not want to be parroting everything . In this sense english is very bad because most of the verbs are exceptional :).

    By the age of six, I spoke greek, turkish ( my great grandmother did not speak any greek having come from Kappadocia where some decades before she was born the cutting of tongue was enforced if people did not speak turkish), some english, and some purist greek close to ancient greek because most written language including children's magazines were written in purist, I remember when I was learning grammar in grade school of matching cases and inclinations to the other languages. Actually turkish has a much richer grammar in verbs than either greek or german and I have not heard of any exceptional physicists from there :), but I may be wrong.

  18. I have no idea who Charles Poladian is and no particular desire to beat this dead horse (presumably while shouting at it German), but I agree with Lubos that the article seems exceptionally bad. But what does it say about the International Business Times that its standards for science articles includes such abominations as “MIT cites a study” and “notes MIT”? The standard refuge writers often take in response to such criticism is “those mistakes were introduced by the copy editors”. Well, it seems there are enough other errors in the story that it would be hard to blame the copy editors for all of them.

    Incidentally, I will note that, in the same sense in which a broken clock can be right twice per day, when Poladian wrote “The observed particle is spinning clockwise and the entangled particle will be observed to spin counterclockwise” it was not necessarily wrong. If you write things like “according the University of Washington” it’s presumably asking too much that you know about the definition of helicity, which associates the spin direction with the direction of motion. But from a fixed observation point, if the particle moving towards you is spinning CW, its entangled partner moving away from you is spinning CCW. This is meant to clarify, not contradict, the parenthetical remark Lubos made on this sentence.