by Paul Temple
I recently gave a cat-oriented friend a framed copy of a New Yorker cartoon showing a vet’s waiting room. A vet is saying to a man sitting there, “About your cat, Mr Schrödinger, there’s good news and there’s bad news…” Linda put the cartoon in her downstairs loo, and says that half her visitors think it’s hilarious while the rest are completely baffled.
The cartoon really summarises the totality of my knowledge of quantum mechanics, but as it seems to be one of those topics where if you think you understand it, you almost certainly don’t (and you’d be in pretty good company, see below), then my almost boundless ignorance doesn’t feel too bad. But as ideas borrowed from quantum mechanics seem to be colonising areas of discourse that were until recently understandable (we thought) to those of us without doctorates in the subject, perhaps we’d better make an effort.
A recent example of its spread is the paper by our colleague Ron Barnett, ‘Only connect: designing university futures’ in Quality in Higher Education, in which Ron uses the idea taken from quantum mechanics of “entanglement” to consider the university’s relationship with other entities. (And this is where it starts to get tricky.) As Ron notes, entanglement implies that the entities involved are mutually constitutive: one entity cannot be understood without examining the other entities with which it is entangled: “It may be true that one cannot give a description of the modern university without also referring to the economy but the reverse situation also holds: one cannot give a proper description of the economy without referring to a society’s universities. The economy is constitutive of universities, certainly; but universities are also constitutive of the economy”.
So far, so just about OK, yes? But the entanglement idea leads us into territory that is beyond weird: Einstein apparently wrote that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” what entanglement implies, but – assuming that quantum computing is going to work, and there are some big bets on it doing so – it turns out that even he was mistaken. What Einstein couldn’t accept, it seems, was that two entangled objects, wherever in the universe they may be, become in effect one, after at first assuming opposite states.
Yes, this is way past anything that we’ve learned to accept as normal. One suggestion of how to think about entanglement asks us to imagine you and a friend tossing entangled coins. (How did they become entangled in the first place? Pass.) If, when you look at your coin, it’s heads, then your friend’s coin will, necessarily, be tails. But if your friend now looks at their coin, it will be heads, which means that your coin will now be tails: back to Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both dead and alive. (While the bits in normal computing have a value of either zero or one, qubits in quantum computing can have values of zero and one: Schrödinger’s cat is at the computer keyboard, which incidentally needs to be at a temperature close to absolute zero.)
With Einstein, perhaps, you may think this makes no sense, but earlier this year Google announced a breakthrough in creating an “error correction quantum computer”, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project (Microsoft, Amazon, the Chinese, and others are also on the case), so they obviously think this stuff will work, regardless of the normal rules of the universe.
So, to pursue Ron’s suggestion about the university and the economy being mutually constitutive, it seems to follow that they will be – must be, following the theory – in opposite states. If you were looking for an argument for universities needing to be independent of government, might this be it? Next time a minister inveighs about universities being nests of woke, perhaps someone should explain the quantum aspects of the situation to them: the more regressive government policies become, universities will necessarily become more radical – it can’t be helped, it’s just to do with entanglement and the structure of the universe. I’m sure they’d appreciate the clarification.
Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.