Five Experiments That Show Your Universe Is Weird, Really Weird

From time crystals to quantum brains, researchers say there's not a lot of real in reality.

Five Experiments That Show Your Universe Is Weird, Really Weird

We take our reality just like we take our tax preparers: solid and dependable, with an aversion to surprises.

Experiments during the last few years, however, seem to indicate that our reality is less like a nerdy accountant buried in piles of 1040 forms and more like the half naked, fully drunk performance artist who thrives on not just surprising, but shocking the ever-loving crap out of us.

Here are just five:

1. Experiment Shows Your Reality Has Been Weird for Centuries (Not Just Since the '60s)

You probably think entanglement -- the idea that particles across the universe can be instantly connected -- is weird. It sounds an awful lot like telepathy. You’re not the only one. Albert Einstein was weirded out by the notion, too, and he and a bunch of his fellow freaked out physicists -- Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen -- got together and tried to prove it was incorrect.

What can I say, these guys were just really into causality: the idea that if you knock your cue ball into the eight ball that it sinks into the side pocket. It does not somehow fly out of the pocket and slam into your cue ball.

It didn’t turn out to well for the causality-loving trio of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, or EPR. Over the decades since the EPR paper, scientists have chipped away at all the possible natural explanations for entanglement -- ones that upheld causality.

Now, MIT physicist David Kaiser -- who wrote How the Hippies Saved Physics -- and his colleagues have used light from a star that took 600 years to reach earth that entanglement, not causality, is upheld. And, somehow, in a thought that would have straightened Einstein's hair, it's like going back in time to choose how the light traveled to earth.

2. The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be

Einstein had to go and open his big yap and say that space-and-time were connected. Then, he went on to disagree about entanglement -- this idea that particles, separated by vast distances -- could be connected.

Scientists began to wonder that if particles can be entangled in space, that means, they could be entangled in time. And this means, as we've seen, that the future could affect the past. (I think I may have heard Einstein puke in his mouth a little.)

In April 2012, Nature Physics reported that scientists found that time could be entangled, leading them to suggest that, “future actions may influence past events, at least when it comes to the messy, mind-bending world of quantum physics.”

And here’s the real mic drop. Particles can be entangled when they are no longer even particles.

"The fantastic new thing is that this decision to entangle two photons can be done at a much later time," said research co-author Anton Zeilinger, also of the University of Vienna. "They may no longer exist."

Material Straddles Classical-Quantum Weirdness

Let’s face it, you and I are like the not-so good looking dancers who desperately want to get into the hot new quantum nightclub, but a thin rope separates us -- those trapped in the classic world with its boring Newtonian rules -- from rubbing shoulders, or grinding other body parts, with the beautifully exotic physics of the quantum world.

Hang on, I think the bouncer likes us.

In a recent experiment, Johns Hopkins scientists discovered a process that could cut that thin line between classic and quantum physics. The material is a type of topological insulator, which is a bit of a holy grail for physicists because they are a conductor on the exterior and an insulator inside.

In this case, the researchers made a topological insulator out of bismuth and selenium. When they shot a beam of terahertz radiation down the wire, the material subtly twisted the beam. It may not sound like a big deal, but the scientists recognized that the rotation was described precisely by the rules of quantum mechanics. They were witnessing macro-scale objects undergoing a quantum process.

This strange material could be one step in trying to understand just how weird quantum mechanics can get.

WTF are Time Crystals?

It sounds like something a Sleestak would wear around his neck and it was initially dismissed by most researchers, but time crystals are a thing now.

Originally physicist Frank Wilczek created equations that suggested that you could theoretically create a crystal that would outlast the universe. Crystals are a continuous lattice, which is just a weird way to describe a pattern that repeats itself.

And that’s the key, if a pattern repeats itself in space, does it repeat itself in time? Wilczek’s equations say that even though it sounds like perpetual motion, according to his equations, yes, theoretically, it’s possible.

When a bigshot physicists says, “Yes. Well. Theoretically,” a bunch of other scientists try to prove it physically, or, more deliciously, prove him or her wrong.

In this case, a team of scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Microsoft put together the blueprint. Then, researchers from the University of Maryland and Harvard each found a way to follow that blueprint.

Big Think describes the experiment like this: “In the University of Maryland experiment, researchers took 10 ytterbium ions whose electron spins were entangled, and used a laser to create a magnetic field around them. Then a second laser was used to push their atoms. The atoms started moving together, due to their entanglement, creating a pattern of repeating lattices. Besides physical symmetry, the atoms would have to break time symmetry as well. After a few moments, something odd happened. The pattern of movement soon became different than that of the laser pushing the atoms. Atoms reacted even when the laser hadn’t hit them.”

Too Big, Too Hot for Quantum Mind?

Scientists are OK that quantum physics probably has a role in every process that we know. After all, biology is based on chemistry, and chemistry is based on physics and physics is based on quantum processes. But, what role does quantum physics play in the process that is our most intimate interface with reality -- our consciousness?

To that notion, most scientists said, woah up! Too far! The brain is too hot and neurons are too big for quantum processes to play a meaningful role. And, besides, that sounds weird.

Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose stepped up first to try to slay that sacredly weird cow with their Orch-Or theory. The scientific community hammered Hameroff and Penrose for suggesting that quantum processes in the microtubules contribute to consciousness.Recently, though, evidence is backing up this theory -- and other theories are coming forward. For example, a new theory by physicist Matthew Fisher, of University of California, Santa Barbara, shows that it may be possible for quantum processes to happen in the brain for minutes, or even hours.

And that could mean, weirdly enough, that your brain is acting like a quantum computer.

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Matt Swayne
Matt Swayne
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Matt Swayne

I'm a science and research writer with an interest in future and fringe technologies.

Reformed journalist and marketer.

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