Remember in Tenet where they showed bullets landing before you pulled the trigger? Last week’s freaky Nobel Prize winner demonstrated this aspect of Tenet – whether you liked it or not – was scientifically accurate: our universe isn’t ‘locally real.’
‘Locally real? What’s that? Who cares?’ Let’s discuss what that means from a nerdy scifi perspective. As Scientific American explains: ‘One of the more unsettling discoveries in the past half century is that the universe is not locally real. “Real,” meaning that objects have definite properties independent of observation—an apple can be red even when no one is looking; “local” means objects can only be influenced by their surroundings, and that any influence cannot travel faster than light. Investigations at the frontiers of quantum physics have found that these things cannot both be true. Instead, the evidence shows objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement. As Albert Einstein famously bemoaned to a friend, “Do you really believe the moon is not there when you are not looking at it?”’
What’s that mean? The University of Vienna adds: “The phenomenon of entanglement … represents a connection between particles that is difficult to grasp with our everyday intuition. When a measurement is performed on one partner of an entangled pair, there is an instant change of the quantum state of the other partner, regardless of the distance between the particles. In addition, quantum theory considers the measured properties of the particles to be completely undefined right up to the point of the measurement itself. Given this description from quantum theory, Albert Einstein referred to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.'”
Fun fact: a dungeon in the Vienna Hofburg Palace was used to confirm quantum entanglement.
Let’s Break That Down
‘I don’t get what any of that means and it’s making my head hurt.’ It made my head hurt, too. Fortunately, a helpful Redditor provided the answer in this ELI5 thread:
“Real” = an object and its properties continue to exist even when nothing is interacting with it. A basket of 5 apples will still have 5 apples even when no one is looking.
“Local” = in order to change an object’s properties, something needs to physically interact with it. If you throw another apple into the basket of apples, the basket will not contain 6 apples until the apple you threw reaches it. It is assumed there is a maximum speed at which that apple can travel.
“Not locally real” = it has been observed that the basket registers that it contains 6 apples the moment you throw the 6th apple rather than when the 6th apple reaches the basket. The properties of the object have changed without direct interaction.
So there you have it. The universe knows when things change and makes itself ready to experience the change, even though the change hasn’t actually happened yet. Weird, huh? The implications of this – from a scientific perspective – tend to bend your head. Christopher Nolan was onto something when he made Tenet and it’s provided some fodder for an upcoming short story. I’ll share more about that as soon as I can.
You finished this article and you enjoyed it. I knew that before you started to read.