What is space? It isn't a question that most of us normally ask. Space is the venue of physics; it's where things exist, where they move and take shape. Yet over the past few decades, physicists have discovered a phenomenon that operates outside the confines of space and time: nonlocality--the ability of two particles to act in harmony no matter how far apart they may be. It appears to be almost magical. Einstein grappled with this oddity and couldn't come to terms with it, describing it as "spooky action at a distance." More recently, the mystery has deepened as other forms of nonlocality have been uncovered. This strange occurrence, which has direct connections to black holes, particle collisions, and even the workings of gravity, holds the potential to undermine our most basic understandings of physical reality. If space isn't what we thought it was, then what is it? Here, science journalist George Musser sets out to answer that question, offering a provocative exploration of nonlocality and a celebration of the scientists who are trying to explain it. Musser guides us on a journey into the lives of experimental physicists observing particles acting in tandem, astronomers finding galaxies that look statistically identical, and cosmologists hoping to unravel the paradoxes surrounding the Big Bang. He traces the often contentious debates over nonlocality through major discoveries and disruptions of the twentieth century and shows how scientists faced with the same undisputed experimental evidence develop wildly different explanations for that evidence. Their conclusions challenge our understanding of not only space and time but also the origins of the universe--and they suggest a new grand unified theory of physics.--Adapted from book jacket.
The title, Spooky Action at a Distance, refers to a strange property that seems to allow one subatomic particle to be instantly affected by another subatomic particle with which it has been 'entangled', no matter how far apart they may be. Imagine two billiard balls. After a brief meeting, you roll them away from one another. When they reach opposite ends of the pool table, you spin one clockwise. The other immediately spins to match. It's as if they're linked, as if the the space between them doesn't really exist. So, maybe it doesn't; not the way we normally think of it, anyway. Of course this doesn't really apply to big things like billiard balls because the strange effects seem to cancel out at large scales, but the effect is real, and it leads to questions about the nature of time, matter, and pretty much everything else.
We call investigators of reality 'physicists' now rather than 'philosophers'. The biggest difference seems to be whether or not they use esoteric equations to help them out. In that sense, this book is probably more philosophy than science, which is not a bad thing. It's implied that a lot of complicated math lies behind modern ideas, but Musser kindly refrains from exposing us to it.
But a brilliant mind is still a brilliant mind by any name, and they are looking for answers. What they all seem to agree on is that space and time, and pretty much everything we think of as 'reality', can't be quite what they appear to be. Not fundamentally, anyway. There's a deeper reality behind our familiar apparent reality. They're just not sure what it is, and from how it sounds, that's not likely to change anytime soon. The questions aren't easy. The answers aren't obvious, but the current speculations are fascinating, mind-bending. It may take another two thousand years before we (or maybe our robotic successors?) finally figure it all out. Maybe we never will, but it's important to try. There's no chance at all of finding answers if we don't ask questions.