Why do they say love when they mean entanglement?

Distance can be so painful. We all have experienced having our beloved ones far away, either in time or space. I can only say that physical pain is milder.

Entanglement was born as the denial of distance. In the thirties, when quantum mechanics was still a child, Schrödinger was astonished to consider that quantum particles could, somehow, keep in touch even when they are separated long distances. Just because they interacted in the past, and they keep the connection.

Let us consider particles which are so dumb that they can only learn how to answer one question, and only with “yes” or “no”. All other questions are answered randomly. Let us put a couple of these particles in strong interaction, designed so that they will always provide opposite answers to any question formulated to them both. Since they can’t memorize a big list of questions, what they do is the following: the first one to be asked answers randomly, and the second answers the opposite as the first.

But now, to give the interesting twist, consider that the particles are separated a long distance. Still they can’t memorize but one question. Nonetheless, when you ask the same question to them both, they give opposite answers! Don’t call it love, call it entanglement!

By the way, what we described is the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen (EPR) paradox for spin 1/2 particles. Can we use it to send information along large distances? No. But I will leave the reader to think why.

So, these entangled pairs have some kind of connection, which Einstein called a “spooky action at a distance”. It is used extensively by scientists in order to design quantum communication and quantum computers. But I will talk about that some other day. I want to focus on the distance stuff. Entanglement seems to be the denial of distance. Is this true?

Is it rare to find entangled quantum particles? Not at all! Our electrons are strongly entangled to their neighbors, in the same atom or in nearby atoms, thus making up chemical bonds. Typically, these entanglement bonds are of short distance. You may get any block of matter and ask “how many entanglement bonds does this block have with  the rest of the universe”? The answer is normally proportional to its surface area. The reason is that electrons that live deep inside the block only have entanglement bonds to other electrons inside the block. Only the “surface” electrons are entangled to the exterior world. This is called the area law.

A soup of entangled pairs.

A soup of entangled pairs.

But the area law is not always true. Many quantum states, some natural and some engineered, have long distance entanglement bonds. Imagine a blocks in which all the electrons are entangled to a partner which is outside. Life inside that block is weird. Each electron is paired with another one which is out of your reach. So they answer questions in a weird way, which seems totally crazy to you. They are not crazy, they are in love… sorry, they are entangled to other guys which do not live nearby. The system seems random to you. Physicists consider temperature to be the most relevant source of randomness. So, for a scientist living inside such a weird block… a sensible interpretation is that, simply, it is hot. Hot. Really? Because their lovers are far away. Waw. The  metaphor really pays for itself!

But now the twist comes again! Some recent ideas, on which we are working at IFT, suggest that we should look at the relation between entanglement and distance the other way round. You may have heard that the universe is curved. Really. And that curvature is related to the gravitational pull. But you may not have heard of Einstein-Rosen (ER) bridges. If spacetime can be bent, maybe it can be cut and pasted. Why not? And then we can make shortcuts, connections between far-away places. You want to travel from Madrid to Vladivostok really fast? No worries! An ER bridge can do the trick. And this is the conjecture, which was put forward by the argentinian physicist Juan Maldacena: what if EPR=ER? What if we take seriously the area law, and decree that two entangled particles are always nearby? Indeed, this is the case for most of the time. What about the exceptions? If the particles of a given entangled pair seem to be distant to you it is because they are connected through an ER bridge, which, unfortunately, you can’t see. Thus, every time we see distant entangled pairs, perhaps we are just noticing… spacetime curvature at a quantum level.

If Einstein-Rosen = Einstein-Podolski-Rosen, then, is Podolski equal to one?

You may have dozens of objections. For example, doesn’t curvature of spacetime require mass? We do not have a full fledged quantum theory of gravity, so we don’t really know the answers. It helps solve some old problems, such as the black hole information paradox (which we will discuss some other day). But, most of all… it is really beautiful and suggestive.

So, maybe, distance does not exist at all. Maybe you should just get entangled with your beloved ones. But remember… entanglement is monogamous!

Image by RomaniM http://romanim.deviantart.com/art/1-s-and-0-s-198076497

Image by RomaniM

To know more:

Quanta magazine article on EPR=ER.

Entry on entanglement at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Schrödinger’s cat and quantum computers.

Original, in Spanish, published at madri+d, at the blog of the Instituto de Física Teórica (UAM-CSIC): http://www.madrimasd.org/blogs/fisicateorica/2015/10/22/103/

Quantum particle near an event horizon

As the next episode in our series about the Unruh effect (it gets hot when you accelerate), here can watch a video I have prepared which depicts how a quantum particle behaves near an event horizon.

So, what are we watching? The left and right panels show the spin-down and spin-up wavefunctions for a massless Dirac particle (a massless electron), initially at rest in Rindler spacetime. Colors correspond to phase. Because of the principle of equivalence, there are two alternate physical interpretations:

  • You are moving with constant acceleration rightwards. At time t=0 you drop a Dirac particle. It seems to move leftwards, just because you leave it behind. When it gets far away, it slows down. This is due to relativistic time-dilation.
  • There is a uniform gravitational field pointing leftwards. That’s why the Dirac particle accelerates in that direction. As it falls, it slows down. This is due to gravitational redshift.

Of course, the interference pattern which develops at the center is just quantum mechanics, nothing else. But when the particle reaches the edges of the box (top, bottom and right), new interference patterns appear which are spureous to our problem. That’s just the handicap of a finite-size simulation.

Nice, ein? This was work we developed at ICFO, Barcelona, along with Maciej Lewenstein, Alessio Celi and Jarek Korbicz. I have just showed it as a premiere during the Quantum gases meeting at CSIC in Madrid.

It’s hot when I accelerate!

Unruh effect and Hawking radiation

Let us discuss one of the most intriguing predictions of theoretical physics. Picture yourself moving through empty space with fixed acceleration, carrying along a particle detector. Despite the fact that space is empty, your detector will click sometimes. The number of clicks will increase if you accelerate further, and stop completely if you bring your acceleration to zero. It is called Unruh effect, and was predicted in 1976.

That’s weird, isn’t it? Well, we have not even scratched the surface of weirdness!

So, more weirdness. The particles will be detected at random times, and will have random energies. But, if you plot how many particles you get at each energy, you’ll get a thermal plot. I mean: the same plot that you would get from a thermal bath of particles at a given temperature T. And what is that temperature?

T = \hbar a / 2\pi c

That is called the Unruh temperature. So nice! All those universal constants… and an unexpected link between acceleration and temperature. How deep is this? We will try to uncover that.

In our previous Physics Napkin we discussed the geometry of spacetime felt by an accelerated observer: Rindler geometry. Take a look at that before jumping into this new stuff.

Has this been proved in the laboratory?

No, not at all. In fact, I am working, with my ICFO friends, in a proposal for a quantum simulation. But that’s another story, I will hold it for the next post.

So, if we have not seen it (yet), how sure are we that it is real? How far-fetched is the theory behind it? Is all this quantum gravity?

Good question! No, we don’t have any good theory of quantum gravity (I’m sorry, string theoreticians, it’s true). It’s a very clear conclusion from theories which have been thoroughly checked: quantum field theory and fixed-background general relativity. With fixed background I mean that the curvature of spacetime does not change.

Detecting particles where there were none… where does the energy come from?

From the force which keeps you accelerated! That’s true: whoever is pushing you would feel a certain drag, because some of the energy is being wasted in a creation of particles.

It's hot when I accelerate!! Ayayay!!!

It’s hot when I accelerate!! Ayayay!!!

I see \hbar appeared in the formula for the Unruh temperature. Is it a purely quantum phenomenon?

Yes, although there is a wave-like explanation to (most of) it. Whenever you move with respect to a wave source with constant speed, you will see its frequency Doppler-shifted. If you move with acceleration, the frequency will change in time. This change of frequency in time causes makes you lose track of phase, and really observe a mixture of frequencies. If you multiply frequencies by hbar, you get energies, and the result is just a thermal (Bose-Einstein) distribution!

But, really… is it quantum or not?

Yes. What is a particle? What is a vacuum? A vacuum is just the quantum state for matter which has the minimum energy, the ground state. Particles are excitations above it. All observers are equipped with a Hamiltonian, which is just a certain “way to measure energies”. Special relativity implies that all inertial observers must see the same vacuum. If the quantum state has minimal energy for an observer at rest, it will have minimal energy for all of them. But, what happens to non-inertial observers? They are equipped with a Hamiltonian, a way to measure energies, which is full of weird inertial forces and garbage. It’s no big wonder that, when they measure the energy of the vacuum, they find it’s not minimal. And, whenever it’s not minimal, it means that it’s full of particles. Yet… why a thermal distribution?

Is all this related to quantum information?

Short story: yes. As we explained in the previous post, an accelerated observer will always see an horizon appear behind him. Everything behind the horizon is lost to him, can not affect him, he can not affect it. There is a net loss of information about the system. This loss can be described as randomness, which can be read as thermal.

Long story. In quantum mechanics we distinguish two types of quantum states: pure and mixed. A pure quantum state is maximally determined, the uncertainty in its measurements is completely unavoidable. Now imagine a machine that can generate quantum systems at two possible pure states A and B, choosing which one to generate by tossing a coin which is hidden to you. The quantum system is now said to be in a mixed state: it can be in any two pure states, with certain probabilities. The system is correlated with the coin: if you could observe the coin, you would reduce your uncertainty about the quantum state.

The true vacuum, as measured by inertial observers, is a pure state. Although it is devoid of particles, it can not be said to be simple in any sense. Instead, it contains lots of correlations between different points of space. Those correlations, being purely quantum, are called entanglement. But, besides that, they are quite similar to the correlations between the quantum state and the coin.

When the horizon appears to the accelerated observer, some of those correlations are lost forever. Simply, because some points are gone forever. Your vacuum, therefore, will be in a mixed state as long as you do not have access to those points, i.e.: while the acceleration continues.

Where do we physicists use to find mixed states? In systems at a finite temperature. Each possible pure state gets a probability which depends on the quotient between its energy and the temperature. The thermal bath plays the role of a hidden coin. So, after all, it was not so strange that the vacuum, as measured by the accelerated observer, is seen as a thermal state.

Thermal dependence with position

As we explained in the previous post, the acceleration of different points in the reference frame of the (accelerated) observer are different. They increase as you approach the horizon, and become infinite there. That means that it will be hotter near the horizon, infinitely hotter, in fact.

After our explanation regarding the loss of correlations with points behind the horizon, it is not hard to understand why the Unruh effect is stronger near it. Those are the points which are more strongly correlated with the lost points.

But from a thermodynamic point of view, it is very strange to think that different points of space have different temperatures. Shouldn’t they tend to equilibrate?

No. In general relativity, in curved spacetime we learn that a system can be perfectly at thermal equilibrium with different local temperatures. Consider the space surrounding a heavy planet. Let us say that particles near the surface at at a given temperature. Some of them will escape to the outer regions, but they will lose energy in order to do so, so they will reach colder. Thus, in equilibrium systems, the temperature is proportional to the strength of gravity… again, acceleration. Everything seems to come together nicely.

And Hawking radiation?

Hawking predicted that, if you stand at rest near a black hole, you will detect a thermal bath of particles, and it will get hotter as you approach the event horizon. Is that weird or not? To us, not any more. Because in order to remain at rest near a black hole, you need a strong supporting force behind your feet. You feel a strong acceleration, which is… your weight. The way to feel no acceleration is just to fall freely. And, in that case, you would detect no Hawking radiation at all. So, Hawking radiation is just a particular case of Unruh effect.

There is the feeling in the theoretical physics community that the Unruh effect is, somehow, more fundamental than it seems. This relation between thermal effects and acceleration sounds so strange, yet everything falls into its place so easily, from so many different points of view. It’s the basis of the so-called black hole information paradox, which we will discuss some other day. There have been several attempts to take Unruh quite seriously and determine a new physical theory, typically a quantum gravity theory, out of it. The most famous may be the case of Verlinde’s entropic gravity. But that’s enough for today, isn’t it?

For references, see: Crispino et al., “The Unruh effect and its applications”.

I’ll deliver a talk about our proposal for a quantum simulator of the Unruh effect in Madrid, CSIC, C/ Serrano 123, on Monday 14th, at 12:20. You are all very welcome to come and discuss!

Feeling acceleration (Rindler spacetime)

This is the first article of a series on the Unruh effect. The final aim is to discuss a new paper on which I am working with the ICFO guys, about a proposal for a quantum simulator to demonstrate how those things work. We are going to discuss some rather tough stuff: Rindler spacetime, quantum field theory in curved spacetime, Hawking radiation, inversion of statistics… and it gets mixed with all the funny stories of cold atoms in optical lattices. I’ll do my best to focus on the conceptual issues, leaving all the technicalities behind.

Our journey starts with special relativity. Remember Minkowski spacetime diagrams? The horizontal axis is space, the vertical one is time. The next figure depicts a particle undergoing constant acceleration rightwards. As time goes to infinity, the velocity approaches c, which is the diagonal line. But also, as time goes to minus infinity, the velocity approaches -c. We’ve arranged things so that, at time t=0, the particle is at x=1.

Minkowski diagram of an accelerated particle.

Minkowski diagram of an accelerated particle.

Now we are told that the particle is, really, a vehicle carrying our friend Alice inside. Since the real acceleration points rightwards, she feels a leftwards uniform gravity field. Her floor, therefore, is the left wall.


Alice in her left. Acceleration points rightwards, “gravity” points leftwards.

Are you ready for a nice paradox? This one is called Bell’s spaceship paradox. Now, imagine that Bob is also travelling with the same acceleration as Alice, but starting a bit behind her. Their trajectories can be seen in the figure


Alice and Bob travel with the same acceleration. Their distance, from our point of view, is constant.

From our point of view, they travel in parallel, their distance stays constant through time. So, we could have joined them with a rigid bar from the beginning. Wait, something weird happens now. As they gain speed, the rod shrinks for you… This is one of those typical paradoxes from special relativity, which only appear to be so because we don’t take into account that space and time measures depend on the point of view. This paradox is readily solved when we realize that, from Alice’s point of view, Bob lags behind! So, in order to keep up with her, and keep the distance constant, Bob should accelerate faster than her!

So, let us now shift to Alice’s point of view. Objects at a fixed location at her left move with higher acceleration than she does, and objects at her right move with lower acceleration. Her world must be pretty strange. How does physics look to her?

One of the fascinating things about general relativity is how it can be brought smoothly from special relativity when considering accelerating observers. In order to describe gravity, general relativity uses the concept of curved spacetime. In order to describe how Alice feels the world around her we can also use the concept of curved spacetime. It’s only logical, Mr Spock, since the principle of equivalence states that you can not distinguish acceleration from a (local) gravity field.

Fermi and Walker explained how to find the curved spacetime which describes how any accelerated observer feels space around her, no matter how complicated her trajectory is. The case of Alice is specially simple, but will serve as an illustration.

The basic idea is that of tetrad, the set of four vectors which, at each point, define the local reference frame. In German, they call them “vier-bein”, four-legs, which sounds nerdier. Look at the next figure. At any moment, Alice’s trajectory is described by a velocity 4-vector v. Any particle, it its own reference frame, has a velocity 4-vector (1,0,0,0). Therefore, we define Alice’s time-vector as v. What happens with space-vectors? They must be rotated so that the speed of light at her point is preserved. So, if the time-vector rotates a given angle, the space-vector rotates the same vector in the opposite direction, so the bisector stays fixed.


The local frames of reference for Alice, at two different times.

Now, each point can be given a different set of “Alice coordinates”, according to local time and local space from Alice point of view. But this change of coordinates is non-linear, and does funny things. The first problem appears when we realize that the space-like lines cross at a certain point! What can this mean? That it makes no sense to use this system of coordinates beyond that point. That point must be, somehow, special.

In fact, events at the left of the intersection point can not affect Alice in any way! In order to see why, just consider that, from our point of view, a light-ray emmited there will not intersect Alice’s trajectory. Everything at the left of the critical point is lost forever to her. Does this sound familiar? It should be: it is similar to the event horizon of a black hole.


Red: what Alice can’t see. Green: where Alice can’t be seen.

Let us assume that you did all the math in order to find out how does spacetime look to Alice. The result is called Rindler spacetime, described by the so-called Rindler metric. In case you see it around, it looks like this

ds^2=(ax)^2 dt^2 - dx^2 - dy^2 - dz^2

Don’t worry if you don’t really know what that means. Long story short: when Alice looks at points at her left (remember, gravity points leftwards), she sees a lower speed of light. Is that even possible? That is against the principle of relativity, isn’t it? No! The principle of relativity talks about inertial observers. Alice is not.

So, again: points at her left have lower speeds of light. Therefore, relativistic effects are “more notorious”. Even worse: as you move leftwards, this “local speed of light” decreases more and more… until it reaches zero! Exactly at the “special point”, where Alice coordinates behaved badly. What happens there? It’s an horizon! Where time stood still.


The world for Alice, Rindler spacetime: speed of light depends on position, and becomes zero at the horizon.

Imagine that Alice drops a ball, just opening her hand. It “falls” leftwards with acceleration. OK, OK, it’s really Alice leaving it behind, but we’re describing things from her point of view. Now imagine that Bob is inside the ball, trying to describe his experiences to Alice. Bob just feels normal, from his point of view… he’s just an inertial observer. But Alice sees Bob talking more and more slowly, as he approaches the horizon. Then, he friezes at that point. Less and less photons arrive, and they are highly redshifted (they lose energy), because they had to climb up against the gravitational potential. Finally, he becomes too dim to be recognized, and Alice loses sight of him.

That description would go, exactly, for somebody staying fixed near a black hole dropping a ball inside it. The event horizons are really similar. In both cases, the observer is accelerated: you must feel an acceleration in order to stay fixed near a black hole! As Wheeler used to say, the problem of weight is not a problem of gravitation. Gravitation only explains free fall. The problem of weight is a problem in solid state physics!!

For more information, see Misner, Thorne and Wheeler’s Gravitation, chapter 6. It’s a classic. I wish to thank Alessio, Jarek and Silvia for suffering my process of understanding…

Time travel from classical to quantum mechanics

I would like to return to the time travel questions we posed on this entry. Basically, we want to understand Polchinski’s paradox, which we show in this pic So, imagine that you have a time machine. You launch a ball into it in such a way that it will come out of it one second before. And you are so evil that you prepare things so that the outcoming ball will collide with the incoming one, preventing it from entering the machine. The advantage of this paradox is that it does not involve free will, or people killing gradpas (the GPA, grandfathers protection association, has filed a complaint on the theoretical physics community, and for good reason).

No grandpas are killed, sure, but maybe the full idea of time-travel is killed by this paradox. Why should we worry? Because general relativity predicts the possibility of time-travel, and general relativity is a beautiful and well-tested physical theory. We’re worried that it might not be consistent…

There is a seminal paper by Kip Thorne and coworkers (PRD 44, 1077) which you can find here, which advances the possibility that there are no paradoxes at all… how come? In the machine described above we have focused on a trajectory which gives an inconsistent history. But there might be other similar trajectories which give consistent histories. In fact, there are infinite of them, so our problem is now which one to choose! But let us not go too fast, let us describe how would the “nice” trajectories come.

A possible alternate history: the ball travels towards the machine with speed v, but out of it comes, one second before the collision, a copy of itself with speed v’>v, in such a way that the collision does not change the direction of the initial ball (a glancing collision), but it also accelerates it… up to v’, thus closing the circle! There are no problems with conservation of energy and momentum, since the final result is a ball with speed v…

Thorne et al. described, for a case that was similar to our own, infinitely many consistent trajectories… And the question is left open: is there any configuration which gives no consistent trajectories at all? So far, none has been found, but also there is no proof for this.

And what happens when we have more than one possible consistent trajectory? My feeling is that we’re forced to go quantum! Classical physics is just an approximation. Nature, really, follows all paths, and make them interfere. But if there is a minimum action path, then it, under some conditions, may be the most important one. Quantum mechanics is happy with lots of consistent histories: they would just interfere… And a lot of funny things happen then, but let us leave that for another post…

So, what do you think? It will always be possible to find a consistent history, or not? Are there true paradoxes in time travel?