Nobel Prize in Physics 2022 and the late John Stewart Bell – A message to Conservatives on the precarious pathway to educational success

This is a message to all those in the government who claim to know how to manage Higher Education with a high degree of ‘Militant Ignorance’ (*see footnote). The pivotal role of universities should not be denigrated with false premise concocted by scoundrels. Fair access to a university education for all, regardless of disadvantages, lies at the core of success of human endeavour. There are many examples to choose from and today the Nobel Prize awards bring one salient and unexpected example to light.

Today we heard of the Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to three scientists “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science”. Most political observers today will not notice the announcement or appreciate its significance. Yet the prize-winning experimental work has set the scene for profound advances in quantum computing that are still developing. Their experiments were firmly rooted in the ideas of John Stewart Bell who developed the eponymous ‘Bell’s Theorem’ in 1964.  He addressed the so-called Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox, first presented in 1935, by postulating that all atomic particles possessed properties he called ‘hidden variables’ to explain their behaviour when entangled pairs are separated, even over large distances. The challenge was to devise experiments to test this idea. **There is more detail on this in the footnote.

Why John Stewart Bell is significant.

Bell’s research made him one of the titans of physics in the 20th Century.  Sadly, he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1990 in the same year he was nominated for a Nobel Prize. If he were alive today, he would be 94 years old and would certainly have shared the prize.  The recipients are all over seventy years old and are fortunate to be around to take the accolades. They are Alain Aspect of France (75), John Clauser of the USA (79) and Anton Zeilinger of Austria (77).

Bell was a product of a rigorous university education and strong-willed determination as much as his raw ability.  He rose from a very humble background to succeed at a time when all the odds were against him. If he had been born a girl, his chances from such a background would have dropped to zero at that time. He is why we need to support and encourage education to the highest level for those from all backgrounds. The Conservative conference this week illustrated that current government thinking on higher education is, in contrast, prejudiced, woolly thinking and prone to wilful distortion. Universities are central to advancing in all areas and vital to the survival of our futures.

Bell’s precarious pathway to success.

The publication of Bell’s theorem in 1964 revolutionised our understanding of quantum theory. This extraordinary insight into the natural world is still both astounding and controversial. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly in 1990 and posthumous Nobel Prizes are not possible. The background of this remarkable man further emphasises his achievements. For the son of low-income parents to achieve a university education at a time when there was no universal secondary education was rare. He was born in the area of Belfast known locally as ‘the village’ and lived in the less than affluent Tates Avenue, not far from the Windsor Park Football stadium. This is an area of tightly packed terraced housing dating from the 19th century. Most of you will have seen the streets around there from later episodes of ‘Line of Duty’ on the BBC. Especially, the shoot out on the Albert Bridge at Tates Avenue near to Bell’s birthplace. The irony is that the area became a flashpoint in the 70s and 80s and hosted many heavily armed police and army patrols. In 1981, I was detained for some time at gun point by a very nervous army patrol at the same bridge. They were suspicious of a Coventry kid and the stainless-steel tubing and bottles of sterile buffer I was transporting in my car between the Microbiology Department in the Medical School and Biology laboratories on the main university site.  But back to Bell and his exploits.

Despite success at nearby Fane Street School, the funds for a grammar school education were not available for him. Instead, he attended Belfast Technical High School. This led him to a technician’s job as a teen in the Physics Department of Queen’s University. He used his own earned money and a scholarship to start a degree course. To its considerable credit Queen’s looked after him and he started as a student in 1945, graduating with First-Class Honours in Experimental Physics in 1948. After a year he achieved another First-Class degree in Mathematical Physics.

But, despite his obvious talent he could not afford to fund a PhD. He needed a paid job and set out to work at the UK Atomic Research Establishment at Harwell. They allowed him some time out from 1951 to study at Birmingham University and eventually he achieved a PhD in 1956.  From there is was able to thrive and progress after passing through a major educational bottleneck.

The following biographies are excellent in charting his precarious progress: Belfast: John Bell’s city | Royal Irish Academy; Bell, John Stewart | Dictionary of Irish Biography; John Stewart Bell | Heritage Humanists.

At this time, we might reflect upon his path through the educational maze that prevailed in those less enlightened times. Since then, many staff at Queen’s University and elsewhere have been fortunate enough to achieve a degree and PhD that were supported financially by the state. It is therefore of great concern that the issue of access to education based upon talent and intellectual ability, and not just the ability to pay, is once again under threat. Equality and fairness are being seriously threatened as the burden of fees marches on and living costs spiral. Its seems the government is not taking serious and effective steps, just heaping blame onto the universities.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


*Militant Ignorance

This is analogous to, and the antithesis of, Military Intelligence of MI5 and MI6 fame. It accepts that those in power are aware of something but take no regard of it. They deliberately ignore the obvious and the evidence if they do not conform to their own world view and prejudice. They are militant in their beliefs and blame the facts for not conforming when things go wrong. It can be seen dispersed in many corners of our society but becomes denser the higher up the command chain you look.

**Some more science background.

The key original publications are ‘On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox’ by Bell in 1964 and ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?’ by Einstein and colleagues in 1935. The mathematical solutions will be impenetrable to all but the most determined scientists, but the ideas are well laid out in both.  More on the extrapolation to computing is in a Nature review from 2000, ‘Quantum information and computation’ and something more accessible is described in an MIT review ‘Explainer: What is a quantum computer?’ from 2019.

In his seminal paper of 1964, sole author Bell stated that, “In a theory in which parameters are added to quantum mechanics to determine the results of individual measurements, without changing the statistical predictions, there must be a mechanism whereby the setting of one measuring device can influence the reading of another instrument, however remote. Moreover, the signal involved must propagate instantaneously”. This rose to the challenge of Einstein and his co-workers who recognised the paradox with, “While we have thus shown that the wave function does not provide a complete description of the physical reality, we left open the question of whether or not such a description exists. We believe, however, that such a theory is possible.”

Simply put, through closer thinking and formulation at the sub-atomic level, Einstein realised some things did not make sense. The nature and behaviour of particles, such as electrons and photons of light, defied understanding and explanation as waves. Bell offered a way forward by considering the idea of such particles possessing ‘hidden variables’ or properties that would explain their behaviour.   When in pairs, they might be preprogramed to behave a certain way later when separated in space. The experimental challenge was to see if Bell’s ‘hidden variables’ existed in nature.

The link to quantum computing.

Out of this, two important things emerged that meant quantum computers could be realised. Current computation relies on reducing all calculations to a simple binary ‘on ( 1)’ or ‘off (0)’ switch.  But, by using the multiple states of sub-atomic particles such as photons or electrons, we can use combinations of states called ‘Qubits’.

The first property is that Qubits can represent numerous possible particle, electron or photon, combinations of 1 and 0 at the same time. This ability to simultaneously be in multiple states is called ‘superposition’ and opens up access to much faster computation.

Now add to this the property of ‘entanglement’ and the world becomes weird. Einstein referred to this as “spooky action at a distance”. He dismissed the idea that two particles separated by light-years could become “entangled”, and instantaneously affect one another, since that was counter to classical physics and intuitive reasoning. Yet the experiments of the prize winners show that it happens for “entangled quantum states, whereby two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated”.  Bell understood the consequence of his idea and the only way that hidden variables could explain the predictions of quantum physics is if they are “nonlocal”, and two particles were able to interact instantaneously no matter how widely the two particles are separated. Could it be possible to communicate instantaneously using this property over huge distances?

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