“Spooky action” limited by Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

I remember the good old days, when astrologers could claim “spooky action at a distance” as a plausible mechanism for their particular brand of nonsense.

Those days are over.

Einstein and his co-workers discovered non-locality while searching for a way to undermine the uncertainty principle. “Now the uncertainty principle appears to be biting back.”

Non-locality determines how well two distant parties can coordinate their actions without sending each other information. Physicists believe that even in quantum mechanics, information cannot travel faster than light. Nevertheless, it turns out that quantum mechanics allows two parties to coordinate much better than would be possible under the laws of classical physics. In fact, their actions can be coordinated in a way that almost seems as if they had been able to talk. Einstein famously referred to this phenomenon as “spooky action at a distance.”

However, quantum non-locality could be even spookier than it actually is. It’s possible to have theories which allow distant parties to coordinate their actions much better than nature allows, while still not allowing information to travel faster than light. Nature could be weirder, and yet it isn’t — quantum theory appears to impose an additional limit on the weirdness.

Now that we know that “spooky action” is limited by the speed of light, almost every counterargument to the concept of astrology having a light-based mechanism works for quantum entanglement as well. But again, knocking out proffered mechanisms doesn’t disprove astrology — no no, what disproves astrology is the lack of evidence for it.

Still though. I can’t help but think, on reading this, that the astrologers we fought in that thread can kiss my ass.

IE8, the enter key, and forms

Today, working on my work mail server’s admin interface, I discovered that IE8 treats submitted forms differently from all other browsers on the market. Including previous versions of Internet Explorer, at that.

The de facto standard is, if you have multiple forms that post to a single script, and you want that script to check to see what form was submitted, you’d check to see if the name of the submit button was set as a variable in the POST variables. To wit:

<form action="index.php" method="post">
    Search: <input name="searchterms">
    <input type="submit" name="search" value="Go">
</form>

This would post whatever you typed into the box as the value for “searchterms”, and would set “Go” as the value of the variable “search”. You could then check if $_POST[‘search’] was set, then do your search.

IE8, however, does something interesting. It is the only browser I’ve seen to do this, and I’ve tested older versions of IE, Chrome, Chromium, Opera, Firefox, and Safari against this bug. If you search for something then hit Enter instead of clicking the Go button, it will not post anything for “search” at all. The variable will simply not get set.

The only workaround I could find, short of hacking in a Javascript check for Enter keys, was to do as follows:

<form action="index.php" method="post">
    Search: <input name="searchterms">
    <input type="hidden" name="search" value="true">
    <input type="submit" value="Go">
</form>

This is not a terrible or onerous workaround, but why in the hell am I developing against a browser that, despite Microsoft’s reams and reams of money and scores and scores of programmers, has idiosyncrasies that should be easy to spot and patch and yet go unpatched even while IE9 is in beta?

Well, it’s because IE is the standard browser in the company. Only myself and a handful of oddballs use Firefox, though the Mac users tend toward Safari.

To make matters only slightly more annoying, none of my nice shiny rounded CSS renders properly in IE8. I’ve added three versions of the same CSS for maximum cross-browser compatibility, but IE is the only browser on the market that refuses to even look cross-eyed at the code. And it makes a mess of placement, too. These are simple Divs with width and height set, and inline display. Look:

Login -- Firefox 3.6 on Ubuntu

Login -- Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP

Tab bar -- Firefox 3.6 on Ubuntu

Tab bar -- Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP

I’ve pretty much decided I can’t be bothered with making this user interface look the same across all browsers. There would be too much unique CSS, and/or the necessity for images (which I’ve thus far completely avoided — clean, simple, all text, and still looks relatively attractive). I get the feeling when IE9 comes out, if (heavens forefend!) they decide to start supporting CSS properly, someone will congratulate me on how pretty my new admin interface upgrades look. And I’ll be forced to punch that someone.

Adam Savage accidentally proves TSA upgrades are ineffectual

So… we’re using backscatter xrays to look at people’s bodies nude, and completely missing foot-long razor blades. What, were they too busy looking at genitals? Is this all the TSA upgrades are for, so some pervs can get their jollies while making idiots feel safer without actually being safer?

Some of my older atheism/science posts you probably haven’t read

Judging mostly by the pageview count, that is.

One of my first posts on atheism, Life, the universe, and everything (or, I’m An Atheist And So Can You!):

The universe *is* finite. We (by which I mean scientists, the guys on whose shoulders I’m trying to stand) are pretty sure it started as an infinitessimally tiny, infinitessimally dense speck containing all the matter that exists in this universe (picture the end result of a “giant” black hole having eaten *everything there is*), and something happened to cause it to explode violently enough to eject all of that matter outward.

If you say “God did it”, you’re still thinking like a deist. Remember, you’re an atheist now, so play along. I’ll get to your thought on that matter in a moment.

Now, the fact that the universe is finite — there’s only so much matter in the universe, and it all got thrown outward by a violent explosion — means there’s a limit to the universe. Yes, the word finite implies this, but I have to stress this point. There’s a limit to the universe. I don’t know what happens if we were to fly out past this limit — past the point where the furthest star in the furthest galaxy got flung billions of light-years away from here. Maybe you’ll basically expand the definition as to what the limit is, and the universe will contain every star plus you way out stretching the edge of the bubble just by flying out past that border. Maybe you’ll hit something and get bounced back. Maybe you’ll wrap around to the other side. Maybe there’s a whole lot of emptiness for a very, very long time, then eventually a big glass wall.

Why is it so difficult to “come out” as an atheist?

Well, for starters, not believing in gods and devils and ghosts and psychic powers and healing crystals and homeopathy on merely the word of some person who has little or no real evidence for their claims is an extraordinarily liberating feeling. The fact that I don’t feel the need to thank God for my every blessing or pray to God to ask him to fix my every trivial problem frees up a lot of my precious time to actually enjoy my blessings and do something about my problems. It also means I can recognize a chain of cause and effect in advance, and either correctly attribute the good fortune that comes my way to the little nudges I can give them, or do something preemptive about the bad things before they escalate. And it means that I can wholeheartedly embrace the true study of reality as it is, the scientific endeavour to expand human knowledge. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the scientific method.

The “screen resolution” of the universe

What, then, are quarks made of? Does this basic unit have a predefined grid that it has to fit onto? Is movement of everything determined on this grid, however infinitessimally small that grid might be? If so, then the time it takes for that basic unit to move from X=4 to X=5 could very well be the basic unit of time of the universe, one “CPU clock tick” in this computer simulation we call existence. That would imply that the speed of light, which is the fastest that light can travel in a vacuum, might be the absolute fastest that every most basic unit of matter can travel through space — e.g., that every single clock tick the matter is moving one grid point. Which might mean that faster-than-light travel is impossible. Or, we could learn that it’s possible to move two grids each tick, or three, or a hundred. Once we know the most basic unit that exists in this universe, and the most basic unit of time, and the most basic unit of space, then all the doors to understanding the universe will be unlocked, and it will just be a matter of walking through them all, and in the right order so as to actually figure out how this universe works, what its rules are, and how (if it’s even possible) to bend its rules.

Wishful thinking

I’m an agnostic atheist. I believe this universe is comprehensible, given enough time and directed efforts, and I believe (like Sagan) that we are this universe’s way of knowing itself. There is nothing spiritual about that fact — we don’t know how many universes there are, or what rules they run on, or whether life is possible in all of them, but the anthropic principle says we wouldn’t be here to observe and worry about the universe if this universe were not capable of sustaining us, so who’s to say there’s anything special about us except that we live in a multiverse of very, VERY large numbers, so multiple such occurrences were bound to happen? And who’s to say that our understanding of reality is anything close to perfect, and that there is no possibility for as-yet-unexplained phenomena?

Religion as mental parasite

Imagine a healthy human mind — not the brain, but that thing that the theists commonly call the soul, the consciousness that is contingent on the proper functioning of that brain. That mind has several properties built up by the structure of the brain over long aeons of evolution: the capacity for rational thought, a sympathy for other like minds that sometimes extends beyond our species by process of anthropomorphism, an ability to create mental images of people based on mere descriptions of them, a willingness to accept authority, an ability to detect (or, more often, suspect) agency behind something that may have no agency at all. Like all other evolved traits, what might be useful in one respect can also be detrimental in another. In other words, because we were not immaculately designed, our minds, the product of the physical brain, has vulnerabilities. Our mental programming has, shall we say, bugs.

If that’s not enough reading to make up for my recent inattention, I don’t know what could be.

The removal of specific words that could save specific lives

Our Lady of Perpetual Win (seriously, you should subscribe to her RSS, or better yet, don’t, so her pageview stats inflate somewhat), blogged today about a disgraceful bit of discriminatory politics at the United Nations.

Unless you speak up and tell the world that gays, lesbians and other sexual and gender minorities are due the same protection of their human rights under the law that the rest of us have, this is what you’re supporting.

United Nations — African and Arab nations succeeded by a whisker in deleting three words from a resolution that would have included gays in a denunciation of arbitrary killings. Europeans protested in vain.

The reference in the three-page draft came in the sixth of 22 paragraphs and urged investigations of all killings “committed for any discriminatory reason, including sexual orientation.” The provision was among many that had been proposed and analyzed by a “special rapporteur” (investigator) on the subject.

Benin, the chair of the African group of nations, proposed the amendment and Morocco, on behalf of the Islamic Conference, argued that there was no foundation for gays in international human rights instruments as there was in cases of race, gender and religious discrimination.

Because the words “including sexual orientation” were struck from this passage, and despite the “committed for any reason”, countries that kill based on sexual orientation including most of the Muslim states that follow Sharia law will continue to do so with impunity, because the especial force behind those words were stripped away. The denunciation of arbitrary killings is good, because arbitrary discriminatory killings happen every day in every country around the world, but the killing of gays and lesbians is practically institutionalized in some countries like Iran. And it is so, mostly because of their religion.

Religion fucks everything up. And not just certain zealots within the religion — the religion itself fucks everything up. Because it always trumps vague wordings like this. Unless the UN speaks up explicitly about the systematic murder of gays and lesbians in these religiously tainted countries, the religion will always take precedence over the explicit denunciation as inhumane of this religiously motivated practice.

Antihydrogen: tiny atom, HUGE F’N DEAL

CERN physicists have done something heretofore outside the grasp of humankind — creating and trapping antimatter. This is a big deal, because catching antimatter and keeping it without it annihilating whatever you’re trapping it with is hard as hell. It’s also a big deal because antimatter is one of physics’ largest mysteries, way out on the very fuzziest of fuzzy boundaries of human knowledge. It’s such a big deal in my estimation, in fact, that when I found out that humankind had managed to leap this hurdle, the most eloquent and comprehensible words out of my mouth for the next half hour were — and I quote — “HOLY FUCKING SHIT.” I’m still buzzing over the news — because this IS huge. It means we might be able to figure out why there’s something rather than nothing in this anthropic universe.

Too late, Ackbar. We have the rebel scum in our clutches.

You see, in the beginning, this universe was seeded from a set of initial conditions that resulted in a good deal of both matter and antimatter. However, the balance was not perfect — some fundamental aspect of the physics of quarks tipped the scales ever so slightly toward matter — and while well over 99% of the matter that was generated from the Big Bang self-annihilated, the remnants became the universe we see today.

Our understanding of the process of the Big Bang — though we know it probably happened, given all the evidence pointing that way — is fairly limited. Since nobody was around to see it (and really, nobody COULD, as time and space mean nothing outside the context of the event itself), we have only the evidence we see today with which to extrapolate how the quantum soup turned into matter, or why matter won the showdown. That is, except we managed to replicate some of the conditions of the initial spark via the LHC and its “little bang”, and we’ve only just now figured out a way to even begin investigating why matter won out over antimatter in this iteration of the universe.

The really amazing thing about this experiment is not that it created some small quantity of antihydrogen. We’ve actually created a good deal of antimatter in the past, but it tends to explode when it touches… well, anything. This quantity of antihydrogen, however, was successfully suspended in an electric field such that we can theoretically study it in the same manner that we study hydrogen. Hydrogen is the smallest, simplest element, and is the most well-studied and well-understood. Antihydrogen is therefore the perfect candidate for study, not only because it’s the simplest to create, but because we can more easily compare its physical properties to its counterpart.

Not that the creation process is at all simple. From The Economist:

Coaxing hot and bothered antiprotons and positrons to couple is quite a task. The magnetic traps employed to hold the antihydrogen are only strong enough to confine it if it is colder than around half a degree above absolute zero. The antiprotons themselves, which are produced by smashing regular protons into a piece of iridium, are around 100 billion times more energetic than this. Several stages of cooling are needed to slow them down before they can be trapped, forming a matchstick-sized cloud of around 30,000 particles. The positrons, produced by the decay of radioactive sodium, are cooled into a similarly sized cloud of around 1m particles and held in a neighbouring trap.

The antiprotons are then pushed into the same trap as the positrons and left to mingle for a second or so. In that time some of the particles get together and form antihydrogen. Next, an electrical field is used to kick out any remaining positrons and antiprotons. The electrically neutral antihydrogen atoms are left behind.

To test whether any antihydrogen was actually formed and captured in their trap, the ALPHA team turned off its trapping magnet. The antihydrogen was then free to wander towards the walls, and thus annihilation. The detectors duly observed 38 bursts of energy which the team concluded came from antihydrogen atoms hitting the wall of the trap.

We are investigating the fundamental nature of our universe, and we are meeting with great success at every turn. To put this leap into perspective, Homo sapiens has existed on this planet for, at absolute most, 200,000 years. Compared to the age of the Earth, or, say, the age of the universe itself, we practically climbed down out of the trees yesterday. Humans have existed for, at best, 0.0000015% of the lifespan of this universe. Our sun will continue to burn in a life-sustaining manner for another five billion years — or 25,000 times as long as we’ve existed in our present, sapient state. Life will be sustainable in this universe for, at worst, another 25 billion years thereafter.

Can you imagine what else we can achieve, if we can manage to stay alive long enough?

Original paper available here.