Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser

Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything by George Musser (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015) 286 pages

SAAAD Musser

I’ve been told—and by more than one person—that I have a kind of knack for explaining complicated concepts in a way that is understandable to people who are not familiar with them. So I have a real interest in how other writers attempt to accomplish this, because I know it’s not an easy thing to do. It has to look easy, but a lot of thought goes into this kind of exploration.

Musser is a general science writer of some note, and he’s won awards for his work with Scientific American magazine. This is a good thing, because what he is attempting to explain here is one of the trickiest concepts to modern physics for general readers and even physicists to grasp: the nonlocal aspects of the universe we live in.

Really? Physicists don’t even grasp nonlocality? That’s more or less what Musser claims (pages 3 and 20) when he notes that his own professors didn’t mention nonlocal “spooky action” once during classes. He had to hear about on the street (well, in a non-textbook) instead of in school.

So what is “spooky action at a distance” and nonlocality? And why is it so upsetting to many modern physicists? Nonlocality is the idea that what happens here, locally, depends not only on the things that can act on the space we have in front of us, but things that are impossibly far away, perhaps even at the edge of the universe. These effects occur faster than light, in fact, instantaneously, and so constitutes not only “action at a distance” such as the moon raising tides on earth, but “spooky action at a distance” because the space between here and there makes no difference in the size of the effect at all.

The “spooky” phrase and title comes from a comment by Einstein, who was disturbed that quantum theory allowed photons of light to become entangled and then separate much farther than any signal could travel between them (no information can be sent faster than the speed of light), yet still have measured values that were coordinated. In other words, if one photon is polarized in the up direction, the other must be polarized in the down direction.

Now, you’re probably thinking what I did when I heard about this phenomenon: what’s the big deal? Isn’t it like have a red and blue ball and putting them in boxes? If you take them to the opposite ends of earth, and open one box and find the blue ball, then the other one must be red, right? What’s the surprise in that? Ah, but if you think of it that way, you would be wrong. Quantum theory was needed because scientists realized that atoms and such could not be tiny versions of regular things like balls (page 8). Otherwise, atoms would explode and so on. To make theory fit with measurements, quantum theory had to take a radical step of proposing that certain physical characteristics, like polarity, could not have fixed values until they were measured.

So it’s not that one ball is red and the other blue from the start: both balls are a mix of “redness and blueness” until the measurement (the opening of and looking into the box) occurs. Then the observed ball “pops” (or quantum jumps) to red or blue and, of course, the other ball must “pop” to the opposite value.

But what does all this “nonlocal” talk mean? Well, Einstein and other physicists have long fretted that if we can’t isolate systems in space during experiments, and influences can travel across the universe in no time at all, then there is no point is doing physics at all (page 11). Something deeper than we know knits the fabric of the world together. But for now, we have no idea what this might be.

Musser uses “magic” coins as an example throughout the book: entangled coins, when flipped, will land both heads or both tails after they have been entangled and separated much more often than chance requires (page 103, among other places). This difference between chance and observation is known as “Bell’s inequality” because Irish physicist John Stewart Bell first formulated nonlocal effects for entangled photons and particles (pages 101-105).

I’m not sure coins are a good analogy for nonlocal effects. I read a very good explanation years ago that showed conclusively why there could be no “hidden variables” that explained the effect. In other words, Bell’s inequality showed that there can’t be little “arrows” attached to the photons that tell observers if the photon is up or down. The percentage of predicted matches in that case will not be the same as the observed percentage.

I realize I am being very opaque about these effects, but that’s because Muller is. There is a rule in publishing general science books today that you can’t mention math or show equations. You can talk about Bell’s inequality, but you can’t show it. I am not sure it’s possible to convey a real feel for “spooky action” without showing any math at all. But I guess it’s better than ignoring nonlocal effects and pretending that’s it’s not a problem for modern physics. (Some physicists shrug and say “it’s weird but who cares? It’s not like you can use it to communicate faster than light…” page 107.)

The real value of Musser’s book is that he not only tries to give readers a feel for the issue, but takes things a step further. He shows how nonlocality pops up not only in the case of purposeful entanglement, but in other contexts as well.

Once thought to be restricted to entangled photons and subatomic particles, Musser show how nonlocal effects seem to play a role in the way Black Holes operate. Black Holes cannot decay, it seems, by Hawking radiation without nonlocal effects making this energy escape possible (page 25). There’s no real surface to a Black Hole, which makes it difficult to decide what’s in and what’s out unless there are nonlocal effects. And without a nonlocal early universe, even with cosmic inflation, the Big Bang should not have left us with the pattern of cosmic microwaves that we see (page 33).

What would the new, nonlocal, physics look like? Musser spends the last sixty pages or so musing about a theory of “Quantum Graphity” (page 184) where space is more complex that a gird of points, and the the “Amplituhedron” (page 203), which bends time and space in new ways. A quote on page 206 from physicist Rafael Sorkin says “A star is closer than yesterday” and shows how far we have come from Newton’s mechanical universe.

Here’s something to think about when I talk about another popular scientist writing about physics next week: Maxwell’s equations. You don’t have to know anything about them for new, just know that the equations as we have them today are not the ones that Maxwell originally formulated (page 143). That’s because Maxwell originally allowed things like electric potential to get values from nonlocal effects. That bothered Hertz and others so much that they rewrote the equations as soon as they could to banish nonlocal aspects.

And that’s the thought I want to leave you with: nonlocal “spooky action” is scary to some, and they would rather “shut up and calculate” (page 20) and work around it than to address it head on and figure out what it is trying to tell us about the universe we live in.

The Explorers Guild by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner, and Rick Ross

The Explorers Guild: Volume One: A Passage to Shambhala by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner, and Rick Ross (Atria Books, 2015) 770 pages

TEG Baird Costner Ross

Okay, before I go any further: READ THIS BOOK. You may love it, or hate it (35% of reviewers on Amazon give it one or two stars), but it deserves your attention. Many of the “bad” reviews have to do with the fact that this tome is almost impossible to read as an ebook and has compatibly issues with many ebook readers, and there is no warning of this to prospective buyers. The book combines elements of graphic novels with traditional text (early 20th Century text, that is) and is printed on tinted paper made to look old and stained…which makes it hard to tell the real stains…but why are you reading books with messy fingers and a leaky Starbucks cups in the first place? However, sloppy or neat, READ THIS BOOK (as a real book: you’ll be glad you did).

This is a book with lots of elbow room. It makes not one concession to “best seller concerns” and I envy it for that. It’s honest and real…the vocabulary is demanding and unrelenting, the long sentences loopy and interminable, the dialog in languages other than English is never translated, and readers are expected to be conversant enough with happenings and cultural touchstones from more than 100 years ago to follow the action and speeches. Speaking of dialog, be prepared to tackle English dialect and phrasing (after a while, it’s sort of like listening to Keith Richards ramble for several days in a row). Several reviewers, stymied by what looks at first glance like an easy adventure tale for teens, abandoned the book in a hundred pages or so. Which is a shame, because the scope of the book increases as the story unfolds and all loose ends come together in an ending that is both extremely satisfying and holds great promise for the rest of the series. This is, after all, Volume One.

So far so good, but what’s the book about? Basically, Word War One has broken out in 1914 not only because of the Sarajevo assassination, but because humans have penetrated the sacred precincts of the holy city of Shambhala, which appears in different places at different times all over the world. The Great War can only end when balance is restored and what has been taken from the traveling city is returned. One of the interlopers is Arthur Ogden, who sets out on a quest from the Explorers Guild in New York to find the Northwest Passage, but which journey turns into a farce and forms one of the longest textual passages in the book—keep with it: it becomes more graphical as it goes on. Sole survivor Ogden (or is he?) returns from a sighting of the sacred city suffering from some strange wasting disease. In desperation, his sister Fanny in New York summons their younger brother John Ogden to find out how to cure their sibling, with clues provided in the form of a mysterious Mr. Sloane, who obviously knows much more than he is telling.

Major Ogden comes with forty followers/deserters, and much of the book traces their travels as they collect the survivors of incursions into Shambhala, a misadventure that has rendered them all hopelessly mad unless brain surgery is performed. Their memories can be probed for clues about the fabled city, but at least two other groups, one led by Mr. Sloane and the other by Brother Polisson, a member of a “non-religious” order of black-robed monks, want to deflect Ogden from his quest. As the forty hearty souls shrinks to fewer than ten, these battle-weary and hardened men became more familiar and endearing to me than many of the guests seated around my table at Thanksgiving. When one or another is lost or wounded or worse, you feel it deeply, and there is no better thing to say about a book, I think. And pay close attention to young Mr. Renton, will you?

That’s not to say the book is a flawless masterpiece (masterpiece, yes; flawless, no). Most of the dangling threads come together nicely, but I could not find closure for one of the key details that sets up the grand finale. The point I’m talking about is on page 681 and referenced again on page 722, but I couldn’t find anything earlier to start this line of reasoning. It just seemed awfully ad hoc to me, as in “Here’s how we get them moving toward Nepal.” And I don’t know how much of it Kevin Costner actually wrote, because the style is almost completely Jon Baird’s as near as I can tell (Rick Ross did the illustrations). But I don’t care if Costner didn’t pen a word and settled for putting his name to an ambitious project—the details of how this came to be are told starting on page 765. But if Costner’s name means more people will hear of and read this book, then I wish there were six more famous names associated with it.

There is no real character development in the traditional sense: the stalwart soldier John Ogden remains stalwart to the end, just as Sherlock Homes remains a great detective even as he spills over the falls and is revived later. Brother Arthur seems just as ditzy as a hapless explorer as he is as the penitent monk he becomes. Handsome and eager Corporeal Buchan remains handsome and eager. And so on. Also, there is an entire character, the young Russian/English/American actress/mistress/prostitute Ms. Harrow, who seems to exist only because without her, we are back to Lawrence of Arabia movie lands with essentially no speaking parts for women other than dining room servants who shriek with proper Victorian outrage when the soldiers ruffle their petticoats.

The blurb promises a return to the “golden age of adventure stories” and conjures up Kipling’s India as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire as easily the graphical style evokes the crazy adventures of Tintin. It is surely that, and more. Parts of the story will stick with you after you’ve put it down, not only Corporeal Buchan (pronounced “Buck-an”) and his mission to Al-Shar that kicks the journey off in Book I, but the only great battle of the book that takes place in an underground ship’s graveyard (you read that right) that starts on page 619, and the troop’s adventures in the city of Gryzha that is reached on page 643.

There is also the odd fact that all the main characters are undeniably British, but not one second of action takes place in England. There are long sections that take place in New York City and in upstate New York, but one of the best episodes takes place in the old Singer Tower, which was torn down in 1968 to make room for the multi-building World Trade Center complex. Here the old aristocracy of Europe has gathered to wait out the war, too besotted and feeble to stop Ogden’s army from looting their liquor supply and even their coats as they await the German zeppelin that will take Ogden’s crew to Romania. It is also a bit disconcerting that the major players can split up repeatedly and come together halfway around the world so easily. Never mind that all this seems improbable: even this book’s shortcomings are better than most other book’s highlights.

Bonus book revelation: The Ogden family estate in New York (another improbable American/English juxtaposition) is supposedly at a place called “Lowring-on-Hudson.” There is no such place, however, and the latitude and longitude coordinates given on page 361 (43 degrees 55’ 8“ N, 73 degrees 36’ 30” W) are nowhere near the Hudson River. But when the villains flee south towards Staatsburg and are chased on horseback, these can be corrected to 41 degrees 55’ 8“ N, 73 degrees 56’ 30” W (take 2 from the 43 and add 20 to the 36). This corresponds to a bit east of Rhinecliff, which is indeed on the Hudson and near the famous Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome featuring WW I aircraft.



Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein (Putnam, 2015) 486 pages

SR Sanford and Ctein


Okay, John Sandford is a name I recognize, but I had never come across Ctein before. And is it pronounced “Stein,” but spelled with a Cyrillic “s”? I think so, but my brain keeps seeing it as “K-tine,” which I’m sure is not correct. In any case, they did a good job of hiding the “co-author” seams of this project, and I know that’s not easy.

I also realized that I haven’t done many science fiction books lately. I seem to have had a long run of fascinating AI and modern biology books lately. But I just finished this one and I’m reading another (and what a book that is: but you’ll have to wait a bit), so we’ll address the overall imbalance a bit.

There is a spectrum of science fiction stories that runs from soft sci-fi to hard. In soft science fiction, Harry gets in his rocket and takes off for Saturn and it just gets there because, you know, the whole point is not the hardware, but what happens between Sally and the alien she told Harry meant nothing to her. In hard science fiction, Harry spends 200 pages telling you how the Saturn rocket was designed, built, and functions because, you know, the whole point is not the Harry-Sally-alien three-way, but the hardware.

On this line from hard to soft, Saturn Run is so hard that it could have been carved out of a diamond by an industrial laser (which actually happens to create a vinyl record needle in the book). There is even a ten-page “authors’ note” starting on page 477 that not only gives readers the science behind the spaceship in the book, the USSS Nixon, but tells how computer simulations were used to make the trajectories and timelines for voyages from earth to Saturn realistic and correct. We have come a long way from simple Hohmann transfer orbits that we calculated with slide rules(!) at NYU back during the lunar program.

We know that getting there is half the fun, and in this case two third of the book involves getting to Saturn. This is where (in 2066) a surfer/slacker/war-hero-post-traumatic-stress/rich guy (page 19) has accidentally discovered an alien space outpost among the rings. The Chinese find out and re-purpose an expedition to Mars to get there first, but the Americans invent a new rocket system called VASIMR (explained on page 172 and again on page 481) and strap it to a modified space station to beat the Chinese to Saturn. Now, there seems to be no other reason for the president of the USA (a Hispanic woman in 2066) to try and beat the Chinese to any possible goodies other than “those guys didn’t invite us along.”

Almost every problem the crew faces along the way is the same as any isolated community in the Arctic or out-of-the-way place faces. So we have issues with testing explosions (page 129), sex problems (pages 150, 207, and 219), and possible sabotage (page 189). (As a computer and network guy, I have to tell you that there is a simple solution to the computer issues mentioned on page 190.)

The earth people are a diverse group, but not really deep. Isolation is always an issue, and I liked the diversity of the crew. They are handled as deftly as the crew in the classic Forbidden Planet movie.

So I liked the book a lot, but it did weasel quite a bit on the one thing that anyone who reads about alien first contact cares about: the aliens. There are none! And of course the artificially intelligent machine that greets the visitors speaks better English than the characters do. The machine is conveniently programmed to reveal nothing at all about alien species, which turn out to be quite numerous in this section of the galaxy. (This knowledge, which should be met with stunning amazement, is shrugged off in favor of a “what neat stuff can you give us?” approach to interstellar relations.)

Instead of real aliens, all the travelers encounter is a kind of alien vending machine or arcade game that grants points for Earth trinkets like old music (Motorhead and Bach are apparently favorites in this arm of the galaxy (page 332)). You trade the points for other stuff (will Lemmy get a cut?), but we never see any alien-wares because the Chinese manage to blow up a piece of the vending machine while trying to get it to go “tilt” or whatever and get Earth banned from interstellar trade for 144 years (I am not making this up: its’ on page 368). But it was an interesting approach to the issues.

I was a bit distressed about one aspect of the book, however. And I don’t feel bad about telling you about this aspect of the book, because it’s out there in reviews already and the end is still a surprise, even if you know this. The whole Chinese-American competition reminded me of the old days after WW II when the USA used to go to international trade talks and say “all we want is a fair advantage” over other countries. After all, the USA won World War II and every other industrial country in the world had to rebuild by buying American, so what was the use of complaining? This strategy kept Americans busy and employed in manufacturing for more than twenty years, but no one explained to the USA trade negotiators that the words “fair” and “advantage” meant very different things and did not belong together in the same phrase, like the oxymorons “working vacation” or “jumbo shrimp.” Other countries wasted no time pointing this out.

In this book, however, the irony of the “we come in peace for all mankind” USSS Nixon crew espousing a blatantly jingoistic attitude is lost on the characters.

The problem is this: the Americans have essentially found eight quarters in the coin return slot of the alien vending machine (yes, I know many machines today do not have coin return slots, but look it up). The Americans split in a hurry before the Chinese find out that the Americans have all the quarters.

I’m not too sure why the Americans of 2066 are so unwilling to share with the Chinese. It may be because of Korea and Vietnam, but we always tell countries that we want to forgive and forget and not to hold grudges. I’m also not sure why the Russians and south Asian Indians seem to have vanished as powers by 2066, which is only 50 years in the future.

In any case, the Chinese solution about the eight quarters, once they find out (“The loose change?” says the vending machine. “The Americans said they’d take care of that…”) is rejected. The Chinese plan is to split the two bucks four ways: two quarters for the USA, two for China, and the other four to be parceled out to other countries. For some reason, the characters all scoff at this crazy Chinese sharing thing, and readers, I take it, are expected to smile and go along with this (I assume there are no plans for a Chinese edition).

Much is made about the presence of a covert Chinese political officer on board, although most of the complaining is done by the American NSA/CIA agent aboard the American ship! The Chinese operative is a bloodthirsty and soulless monster, but I suspect readers are expected to cheer when the spy on the Nixon feeding information to the Chinese is killed in an “accident” (wink, wink) by the American “political officer” at the end of the book.

I think this aspect of the book would not bother me as much if there were some concrete reason for not wanting any quarters to end up in Chinese hands. But the only reason seems to be “well, we’re Americans and we want a fair advantage…” And that did not work well for me.

Infectious Madness by Harriet A. Washington

Infectious Madness: The Surprising Science of How We “Catch” Mental Illness by Harriet A. Washington (Little-Brown, 2015) 292 pages

IM Washington

I didn’t post a book essay last week because we were in Burlington, Vermont for a kind of work reunion (which was very nice, by the way). I devoured one book on the plane there and back, but I picked up this book in the Phoenix Book Store in Burlington and decided to write about it instead. (I thought it ironic to be from Phoenix and find the Phoenix book store in Vermont, and this is yet another lesson about how you can just walk through a store and let your eye fall on a book and go “hey!”…Amazon, when can I walk through your web site like I walk through the sections of a book store? Get on that, will you.)

Okay, now consider this: if you go to the doctor with a fever, and a cough, and an achy body, they will most likely diagnose you with the flu and tell you to do X and take Y and take it easy. But if you go to the doctor complaining of hearing voices, and that people are stealing things out of your pocket as you walk down the street, and that your spouse is trying to kill you, the diagnosis is likely to be very different.

The whole medical profession is set up today to handle physical illnesses and mental illnesses, and you have to have symptoms one or the other to be acknowledged as ill in the first place. With regard to this last point, I mean that if you go to the emergency room or to a psychiatrist and say “I just don’t feel like myself today” you are unlikely to find a sympathetic ear in either place.

But what if there is no such thing as “mental illness” at all? What if what doctors consider to be classic symptoms of mental illness (voices, suicidal tendencies, and so on) are as much the manifestation of an infection as the flu or mumps? That‘s the question Washington’s intriguing book asks and attempts to answer. Fortunately, there are signs—slight signs, but signs nonetheless—that the whole “mental illness” industry that began with Freud at the end of the Nineteenth Century is finally losing its grip on the medical profession.

Why now? Well, think about this: is the old theory of dualism, most notably proposed by Rene Descartes, valid or not? The same thing comes up in discussions of consciousness and artificial intelligence, and has before in these essays. Is there a mind in our bodies that is separate from on physical essence? Is there a spirit or soul that can survive your death or be transferred to a computer? Or is your brain and body all you’ve got? In that case, the feeling that there is a little guy living in your head behind your eyes is just an effect of how your brain works and not a profound revelation about the universe. Washington summarizes all this on page 17. Modern science can only find a brain and body.

I admit my feelings along those lines have evolved. I used to have a strong belief in the spirit or the soul (the more involved you are in religion, the more likely you are to agree with that belief). Then I went in the opposite direction and thought that the idea that we could separate the experience of being human from the sensory input of our bodies as complete fantasy. Now I truly believe that we can simulate intelligent behaviors in manufactured machines like computers or robots, but that whatever this creation might be, it can never be human (and that we can are risking a lot if we don’t realize this).

Enough about what I think. What about the book? Well, one of the risks of presenting some diseases as purely mental problems is that sufferers are judged to be somehow of lesser substance than otherwise healthy people. Crazy people were an embarrassment to families, and these families did not suffer socially from having plague sufferers among relatives. Madness was caused by moral shortcomings, failed family relations like divorce, bad parenting, and other social issues. In many cases, the mother was blamed for any mental problems her children developed (page 48).

This judgmental attitude did not change much until King George III of England went mad in the late 1700s (page 19). No one could accuse a king of not having a good upbringing or suffering from poor parenting, so maybe there was something else going on.

Professionals still argue about what caused George III’s odd behavior and rages, but all research today seeks a physical cause like infection, not a mental one. One thing that helped the king immensely (for a while) was vigorous exercise and good nutrition, and Washington implies that this is a good regimen for all illnesses today.

The big weakness of the book in claiming that all mental diseases from depression to autism to schizophrenia are caused by infections like strep or the flu or more exotic microbes is that much of the evidence we have is statistical. So if Harry gets strep in the spring of his first year of life, autism might emerge soon after in a certain percentage of cases. The most chilling part of the book is when the author discusses individual cases, and how the pattern of the onset of diseases like schizophrenia is indistinguishable from an infection contracted in the winter, when people are inside and in close contact and do not exercise or eat well.

But a percentage getting sick means the same type of infection leaves another percentage untouched. Why is this stuff so darn variable? Because, Washington says, in many cases, it appears that it’s not the original infection that causes the damage to the nervous system and brain that manifests the mental symptoms, but the reaction of the immune system (page 65). Because the autoimmune system varies so much depending on exercise and nutrition as well as genetics, a high degree of variability in immune response is only to be expected.

Many medical conditions are proving to be autoimmune conditions today, and I was diagnosed with one called Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR) in 2010. I am firmly convinced that my episode, which took two years of steroid treatment to clear up, was initiated by a severe case of the flu. My rheumatologist said, “If you’re going to get an autoimmune disease, get PMR, because it’s one of the few we can cure.” Then again, I might well be crazy. 🙂

Why is proving “infectious madness” so hard? It took years before the mental effects of syphilis (called paresis: pages 27-31) were connected with the physical symptoms of the venereal disease. Because we cannot ethically experiment with humans, control groups where treatments that would most likely help are withheld to prove a point are forbidden (not that they haven’t occasionally happened). So strong correlations are probably the best we can do for firm proof until biological science evolves enough to allow realistic test-tube equivalents.

What can you do to protect you and your family from infections that might cause autism, depression, or other “mental” conditions? The easiest one is to wash your hands a lot, and avoid shaking hands in the winter. Don’t eat a lot of junk food (with lots of fat, sugar, and salt included), and avoid hospitals, the Number 1 cause of harmful infections today (page 202). Antibiotics, once so powerful that a doctor in 1967 pronounced the end of infection (page 196), are losing their effectiveness. Therefore, individual exercise and nutrition is more important than ever.

Let me leave you with the words of my father, delivered at a family gathering and greeted by much laughter: “If you can stay out of the hospital, you’ll live forever.” He might have been right.