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Celebrating Each Day: Pi, St. Patrick, Uncle John and Uncle Albert
in the news: This next Tuesday is St. Patrick's Day--and even those people who aren't Irish or don't usually honor Catholic saints typically find some reason to celebrate. Likewise, whereas Math geeks have long celebrated today--March 14--as Pi Day, this year many more people will honor the occasion--if by doing nothing more than eating a piece of pie. That's because this year, as an NBC News story headlines, "Pi Day Hits a Milestone That Comes Only Once a Century: 3/14/15". Of course those five digits represent the approximate value of the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter: 3.1415. You don't have to be Einstein to know that. But those who venerate that great man recognize that today is also his birthday, and that one hundred years ago in 1915 Einstein published what many view as his greatest accomplishment: the theory of general relativity.
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): Some view the last two decades of Einstein's life--and his refusal to fully embrace something that he helped found, namely quantum mechanics, as his greatest failure. Those years began with a famous 1935 paper in which Einstein and two colleagues argued that quantum mechanics was flawed. In particular, he used it to highlight a seeming absurdity: it predicted if one of two so called entangled particles was disturbed, the other--no matter how far away it is, even light years distant, will instantly be affected. He called this "spooky action at a distance." As quantum mechanics became wildly successful, Einstein's reputation suffered. Only in recent years have people realized that Einstein's supposed failure was actually a great triumph. The man who most helped affect this realization was an Irishman: John Stewart Bell.
Bell was born in Belfast in 1928. In 1964 he formulated what today is known as Bell's theorem. Simply put, if the sum S of outcomes of an experiment involving entangled particles stayed between -2 and 2, then "spooky action at a distance" did not occur. By the time Bell died in 1990, he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in physics and his theorem had been experimentally tested many times. The results upheld what Einstein feared and what mystics had long suspected: that spooky action at a distance can occur. Given today's celebrations, I should point out that those experiments involved measuring particles that flew off at a wide range of angles: from zero to 180 degrees or from zero to pi radians.
In 1995 Thomas Cahill published his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. It tells the story of how Irish monks copied manuscripts and preserved knowledge during Europe's Dark Ages. It also tells St. Patrick's story: how this once teenage slave grew into Ireland's holy man and great crusader against slavery. Cahill's book inspired MIT's David Kaiser to title his 2011 book: How the Hippies Saved Physics. This tells the story of how a handful of hippie physicists recognized Bell's theorem as the key to both a new understanding of quantum mechanics and its practical application in encryption and quantum computing. Today, twenty five years after Bell's death and sixty years after Einstein's, increasingly physicists appreciate "How the Irishman Saved the Great Man's Reputation." Last year, in the first of a new generation of textbooks, renowned Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind cited "Einstein's last great discovery--the discovery of entanglement" as "the essential fact of quantum mechanics."
This year, today and on St. Patrick's Day, I'll be thinking about all this in terms of the ongoing human quest to make sense out of reality, create a more just society, and to find a reason to celebrate each day.
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