Interacting across distances

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Louisa Gilder, daughter of George and Cornelia "Nini" Gilder of Tyringham, has just published her first book, exploring this radical idea: an idea that has shaken quantum physics to its roots within the last few years.

In "The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn," she explains entanglement by following the men and women who proposed, denounced, dared and finally explored it. She has written a book of conversations.

"Reading about physicists like Heisenberg or Bohr had so much scientific richness and so much human richness," she said, "it was like watching a movie."

She wanted to read their lives, and no one had written about them — so she did.

This Saturday at 5 p.m., she will hold a conversation about her book at The Mount, in the first of the Mount's new "meet the author" series.

In fact, she has inspired the series. Susan Wissler, executive director at The Mount, explained that when Gilder lived in Tyringham, in high school, she worked as a docent at The Mount and kept an affection for it; the title of her book, "The Age of Entanglement," alludes to Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence."

Entanglement is an unusual and gutsy subject, Wissler said, and for a young woman to pursue it, and for Knopf to publish her work, are both impressive.

Gilder wanted to bring her book to The Mount, and Wissler wanted to connect the Berkshires' rich pool of local writers to The Mount; Wissler's vision for a "Wharton center for the written word" is moving forward, and she hopes to have plans in place by the end of December, she said, for a place where people can meet and study and write — and talk.

Late night arguments in labs and hallways. School friends escaping for long walks. Einstein, Bohr and Sommerfeld on a streetcar in Copenhagen, repeatedly talking right past their stop and riding back and forth across town.

Gilder's dream was to write a book that someone who has never studied physics can enjoy, she said. So she wrote a book about people.

She spent eight and a half years reading notes and diaries and letters and interviewing physicists around the world. She sailed into Alameda, Calif. with John F. Clauser, whose experiments first supported John Bell's theory of entanglement.

She rode a motorcycle through the Black Forest to see the church where Max Born heard Albert Schweitzer playing the organ on a cold winter evening.

"It is not uncommon for science writers to bring in the characteristics of scientists, and I think it's a great way to write," said William Wootters, a professor of physics at Williams College, who does research in quantum computation and quantum cryptography, fields that have grown out of entanglement. "What she has done that is novel is to reconstruct conversations. I'm sure I will learn a lot from reading this book, from the details of history."

Gilder has reconstructed these scientists and their frustrations, as they grapple with ideas they hardly understand, and their family lives and friendships, and their history from 1930's Germany to the atom bomb. The people studying this most high-tech, invisible subject become pony-tailed hikers building experiments from junk-yard parts they have welded in their garages.

"Their ideas were part of their emotional lives, not just their intellectual lives," she said.

Entanglement starts when particles interact. Gilder writes: "...No matter how far they move apart, if one is tweaked, measured, observed, the other seems to instantly respond, even if the whole world lies between them. And no one seems to know how."

Entangled particles can transmit information faster than light. Understanding how they work could lead to the building of quantum computers vastly faster than the fastest machines we have now, Gilder and Wootters explained.

"She has been very careful in researching the subject," he added, and in explaining the theory lucidly. "I am impressed."

He agreed with Gilder that entanglement offers understanding, new ways to look at and explain the world we can touch.

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"Entanglement tells us something dramatic and exciting about how the world works — how bizarre nature is," he said.

Gilder found this understanding more important than any technological advance.

"I went to Dartmouth to be a physics major, with the idea of learning something fundamental about the world," she said.

She took classes in physics for two years. But she became increasingly impatient with the way her classes were taught. They felt insubstantial, focused on theoretical measurements.

"When you read the great physicists," she said, "they will always go back and reconnect to the physical and interactive world."

She found this tension between the physical and the insubstantial going back to the roots of quantum physics. Niels Bohr, whose Copenhagen school founded and dominated quantum theory until the 1990s, insisted that when scientists tried to observe a particle or a wave or a molecule, they changed it. Gilder condensed his argument to: "We can't picture it."

Einstein answered, "you won't get far if you can't picture anything," she said.

This tension, in fact, kept entanglement from being studied for decades. Even in the late 1990s, Gilder had never met the idea in a physics class, and it did not exist in the index of her textbook, though the first experiments that proved it were published in the 1970s.

In a philosophy of science class, Gilder read a paper by David Mermin explaining entanglement.

"I though, this is why I want to study physics. Why did my professors never tell me about this?" she said. "Clauser is eloquent on how much stigma there was and is" around the idea.

Why did physicists resist entanglement?

"Most physicists thought of it as a philosophical question," Wootters said, not as a property to be tested.

When Wootters was at the University of Texas, he said, he knew Edward Fry, a physicist who appears in the book. Fry ran one of the early experiments testing Bell's theory; he expected to prove Bell wrong — and proved him right instead. Nature was stranger than he knew. But he and a handful of colleagues changed entanglement from a mind game into practical, testable knowledge.

Entanglement is a theory, Gilder makes plain, not a mystical vision.

"Our lives will be changed by the technology, but it's so beautiful that the universe works that way — even if we don't know what that way is," she said.

If you go ...

What: Meet the author. Louisa Gilder discusses 'The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn.'

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St. Lenox.

When: Saturday, 5-7 p.m.

Reservations: Call (413) 551-5112 today.


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