Quantum mechanics is weird – I am sure you’ve read that somewhere. And why is it weird? Oh, it’s because it’s got that “spooky action at a distance”, doesn’t it? Einstein said that. Yes, that guy again. But what is spooky at a distance? What did Einstein really say? And what does it mean? That’s what we’ll talk about today.
The vast majority of sources on the internet claim that Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” referred to entanglement. Wikipedia for example. And here is an example from Science Magazine. You will also find lots of videos on YouTube that say the same thing: Einstein’s spooky action at a distance was entanglement. But I do not think that’s what Einstein meant.
Let’s look at what Einstein actually said. The origin of the phrase “spooky action at a distance” is a letter that Einstein wrote to Max Born in March 1947. In this letter, Einstein explains to Born why he does not believe that quantum mechanics really describes how the world works.
He begins by assuring Born that he knows perfectly well that quantum mechanics is very successful: “I understand of course that the statistical formalism which you pioneered captures a significant truth.” But then he goes on to explain his problem. Einstein writes:
“I cannot seriously believe [in quantum mechanics] because the theory is incompatible with the requirement that physics should represent reality in space and time without spooky action at a distance...”
There it is, the spooky action at a distance. But just exactly what was Einstein referring to? Before we get into this, I have to quickly remind you how quantum mechanics works.
In quantum mechanics, everything is described by a complex-valued wave-function usually denoted Psi. From the wave-function we calculate probabilities for measurement outcomes, for example the probability to find a particle at a particular place. We do this by taking the absolute square of the wave-function.
But we cannot observe the wave-function itself. We only observe the outcome of the measurement. This means most importantly that if we make a measurement for which the outcome was not one hundred percent certain, then we have to suddenly „update” the wave-function. That’s because the moment we measure the particle, we know it’s either there or it isn’t. And this update is instantaneous. It happens at the same time everywhere, seemingly faster than the speed of light. And I think *that’s what Einstein was worried about because he had explained that already twenty years earlier, in the discussion of the 1927 Solvay conference.
In 1927, Einstein used the following example. Suppose you direct a beam of electrons at a screen with a tiny hole and ask what happens with a single electron. The wave-function of the electron will diffract on the hole, which means it will spread symmetrically into all directions. Then you measure it at a certain distance from the hole. The electron has the same probability to have gone in any direction. But if you measure it, you will suddenly find it in one particular point.
Einstein argues: “The interpretation, according to which [the square of the wave-function] expresses the probability that this particle is found at a given point, assumes an entirely peculiar mechanism of action at a distance, which prevents the wave continuously distributed in space from producing an action in two places on the screen.”
What he is saying is that somehow the wave-function on the left side of the screen must know that the particle was actually detected on the other side of the screen. In 1927, he did not call this action at a distance “spooky” but “peculiar” but I think he was referring to the same thing.
However, in Einstein’s electron argument it’s rather unclear what is acting on what. Because there is only one particle. This is why, Einstein together with Podolsky and Rosen later looked at the measurement for two particles that are entangled, which led to their famous 1935 EPR paper. So this is why entanglement comes in: Because you need at least two particles to show that the measurement on one particle can act on the other particle. But entanglement itself is unproblematic. It’s just a type of correlation, and correlations can be non-local without there being any “action” at a distance.
To see what I mean, forget all about quantum mechanics for a moment. Suppose I have two socks that are identical, except the one is red and the other one blue. I put them in two identical envelopes and ship one to you. The moment you open the envelope and see that your sock is red, you know that my sock is blue. That’s because the information about the color in the envelopes is correlated, and this correlation can span over large distances.
There isn’t any spooky action going on though because that correlation was created locally. Such correlations exist everywhere and are created all the time. Imagine for example you bounce a ball off a wall and it comes back. That transfers momentum to the wall. You can’t see how much, but you know that the total momentum is conserved, so the momentum of the wall is now correlated with that of the ball.
Entanglement is a correlation like this, it’s just that you can only create it with quantum particles. Suppose you have a particle with total spin zero that decays in two particles that can have spin either plus or minus one. One particle goes left, the other one right. You don’t know which particle has which spin, but you know that the total spin is conserved. So either the particle going to the right had spin plus one and the one going left minus one or the other way round.
According to quantum mechanics, before you have measured one of the particles, both possibilities exist. You can then measure the correlations between the spins of both particles with two detectors on the left and right side. It turns out that the entanglement correlations can in certain circumstances be stronger than non-quantum correlations. That’s what makes them so interesting. But there’s no spooky action in the correlation themselves. These correlations were created locally. What Einstein worried about instead is that once you measure the particle on one side, the wave-function for the particle on the other side changes.
But isn’t this the same with the two socks? Before you open the envelope the probability was 50-50 and then when you open it, it jumps to 100:0. But there’s no spooky action going on there. It’s just that the probability was a statement about what you knew, and not about what really was the case. Really, which sock was in which envelope was already decided the time I sent them.
Yes, that explains the case for the socks. But in quantum mechanics, that explanation does not work. If you think that really it was decided already which spin went into which direction when they were emitted, that will not create sufficiently strong correlations. It’s just incompatible with observations. Einstein did not know that. These experiments were done only after he died. But he knew that using entangled states you can demonstrate whether spooky action is real, or not.
I will admit that I’m a little defensive of good, old Albert Einstein because I feel that a lot of people too cheerfully declare that Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics. But if you read what Einstein actually wrote, he was exceedingly careful in expressing himself and yet most physicists dismissed his concerns. In April 1948, he repeats his argument to Born. He writes that a measurement on one part of the wave-function is a “physical intervention” and that “such an intervention cannot immediately influence the physically reality in a distant part of space.” Einstein concludes:
“For this reason I tend to believe that quantum mechanics is an incomplete and indirect description of reality which will later be replaced by a complete and direct one.”
So, Einstein did not think that quantum mechanics was wrong. He thought it was incomplete, that something fundamental was missing in it. And in my reading, the term “spooky action at a distance” referred to the measurement update, not to entanglement.