Sunday, February 14, 2016

Particles of Light

Did you know that one particle of light (called a photon for those of you who aren't science nerds like me) can be in one place and another particle of light can be in another place and yet they can be so intimately linked that if you changed one then it would affect the other? It's true! Elizabeth Landau, who works for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote about it in an article titled "Particles in Love: Quantum Mechanics Explored in New Study." That article works through entanglement, an idea published by John Bell in 1964 that said that even though information cannot travel faster than the speed of light (Albert Einstein proved this), particles can still affect each other when they are far apart.

Here is a cartoon from NASA/JPL-Caltech that explains entanglement.

Even though there are two photons, they behave as if they are one. What you do to one affects the other, even if they are separated in space and time.

In 2015, three separate studies were published on entanglement, and all three studies were consistent with Bell's idea. Those studies showed that any model of the world that contains variables that are hidden (as the world of the tiniest things does within the branch of physics called quantum mechanics) "must also allow for entangled particles to influence one another at a distance," said Francesco Marsili of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who collaborated with colleagues on a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters titled "Strong Loophole - Free Test of Local Realism."

Bell's idea makes me wonder - are we as human beings like entangled photons?

When I was a boy, I walked down the newly plowed row with my grandpa, feeling the warm, red clay on the soles of my bare feet, listening to his stories. I held a tomato plant in my hands, the rich, black potting soil falling off of the small, vulnerable roots, as he knelt and dug a place for it in the garden. Hey, he said, here's something my daddy told me when I was little. God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen twice as much as you speak. If you do that, you'll learn something. If you don't, you won't.’”

I especially remember his stories about his childhood on the family dairy farm in Greenville, S.C. in the 1920s. I liked to hear stories about the black folks who came and worked with him and his family. I heard hard work in his voice and saw struggle in his face when he talked about those times.

He was a son of the South Carolina soil, a soil that had produced slavery and Jim Crow. His stories reflected his philosophical shift from the idea of white supremacy to the idea of equality. He described the black folks hed grown up with in words both simple and stark.

 I guess I looked around our farm and saw the black folks as tools, he told me once. "But there was a teenager, about my age, who worked on our place. His name was Billy, and he helped me with my work."

"One day," he continued, "We were in the barn together, cleaning up the milking area, when he cut his hand on a piece of metal. Daddy wrapped it up in a rag soaked in kerosene, as was the remedy for most farm accidents at that time, and asked me to drive him home. As we headed toward the black folks part of our town, I thought to myself, Billy must get up very early in the morning, earlier than me, to make it to our house on time. As we drove up to his house, which was what we called a shack, I thought, I wonder if Billy can stay warm in there. As I saw him holding his injured hand and watched his momma hold him up and lead him up the creaking steps and through the rickety door, well, it seemed to be one of the first times I knew that black folks had hands and feet and needs just like me. They weren't tools. They were people.


In that moment, my Grandpa learned that we as human beings cannot be separate and equal. As a matter of fact, we cannot really be separate. What happens to one person affects another - no matter what separates us. We are like photons. Good begets good. Bad begets bad. If we're good to each other then we'll be like photons in another way, too. We'll be particles of light.

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