Entangled States?

Or: What were you thinking when you came up with this name?!?

I started this blog three years ago just before the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It had the particularly unimaginative name of “Nick Knisely’s Blog”. It was an easy way for me to share my impressions and thinking about what was happening while attending the event. My articles were picked up and shared by email amongst my parishioners and other folks in the Diocese of Bethlehem.

After General Convention I decided to keep blogging. I had started a website back around 2000 or so as a way for me to share my “other life” with folks who knew me primarily either as a priest or as an astronomer. My physics and astronomy students had begun to ask me about my religious beliefs – but it wasn’t appropriate to answer those questions in class. The website gave me a way to post things so that they could read up. It was also an easy way for me to share ideas with my parishioners and fellow clergy about what was going on in science, technology and communications. But it was hard to manage the website as it grew and I decided that I’d rather use a blog to post. The files and pictures would be easy enough to manage on a blog too. I took down the full website (www.wnknisely.org) about two years ago and switched everything over to this blog.

I noticed an increasing number of people reading the articles I was posting and decided that if this ever did start to take off, the name “Nick Knisely’s Blog” had to go.

The name “Entangled States” came to me in one of those flashes of insight that happen every so often.

An entangled state is a peculiar phenomenon of Quantum Physics. In entanglement, two objects (electrons or photons normally – but they could be anything) which are described by a probability wave function have their wave-functions overlap and intertwine in such a way that they are said to be “entangled”. When two systems are entangled we can no longer think of them as separate entities. A change to one constituent of the system immediately causes an effect to the other. If you flip the spin of an entangled electron, the other electron flips as well – instantaneously. When I first studied it in graduate school the concept seemed to be just another curiosity of the bizarre and hard-to-understand world of Quantum Physics.

But then I came across an article on Bell’s Theorem. In a nutshell, Bell’s Theorem allows physicists to create a test to determine if Quantum Physics is a complete and fundamental way of understanding reality or if it is just an approximation that works well because it uses sophisticated mathematics. Bell’s work allowed scientists to design an experiment to test it (using electron and photon spin polarization). The experiment was done and the result has been verified repeatedly for years now – Quantum Mechanics is a real and complete description of reality. Classical, deterministic physics is only an approximation of reality.

What this implies is that the Universe is a great deal more complicated than we imagine. Faster than light information exchange is possible. Teleportation is possible. All the strange descriptions of vacuum energy and the quantum foam are not just poetic metaphors. It also means that it is impossible to answer any question with a simple “yes” or “no”. Instead we can at best only speak of probabilities.

This is a rather massive paradigm shift, on the order of the one that occurred when Galileo began to argue against the Aristotelian teleological world view. And as such it will probably take a couple of generations to fully happen. We are in the midst of that process now in physics, and the shift is slowly spreading outward to theology (in process theology) and philosophy.

So then, why did I name my blog after this concept? It’s because so much of our common discourse assumes that the questions we raise have simple “yes” or “no” answers. I have found as a priest, and as a physicist, that many important questions can not be answered so. The best answer we can give is merely an approximation of the richness of reality that is really there. Bishop Frank Griswold, the present Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church often speaks of a pluriform reality (an idea found in sacramental theology). Quantum Entanglement means that reality really is pluriform. There are different levels of meaning. Two people can both look at the same thing, describe it differently and both be correct.

The other reason is that I believe that the name is particularly evocative given what I am trying to do – talk about what it is like to live both as a priest and a physicist in such a way that I am physicist when I’m acting as a priest and priest when I am working as a physicist. The two vocational states of my life are “entangled”.

Of late I’ve discovered a third meaning to the name for the blog. The Episcopal Church is inhabited by two world views at the present moment. (Well, at least two… probably more.) There are voices within the Church arguing that a Church is not capable of containing people who not only disagree but who have different ways of viewing truth and different methods of reasoning. I am not willing to accept this view. I believe that the Church can only be the One true, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church when it contains both views. In other words it is only when we realize that these views are entangled with each other (so that they are no longer two but one) that we can fully comprehend the catholicity of the Church.

So – anyhow – that’s where the name of the blog comes from. As I write and think, I find that I keep coming across more and more reasons for liking the name. I plan on keeping it going for a long time.

About Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...
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