Interstellar Command: The Ansible

Posted Sunday, March 4th, 2012 02:00 pm GMT -4 by

Enders GameIn the Ender’s Game universe (shortly to be made into a film), the human race has barely survived two wars with an alien hive-mind called the Formics, dubbed the “buggers” due to their insect-like appearance. Faster-than-light warships have been dispatched to the alien worlds to deal with this menace once and for all but what’s missing is someone with the talent to command Earth’s forces.

The story deals with the training of an elite force of new young leaders at Battle and Command Schools. These Academies are at undisclosed locations within the solar system, but for interstellar generalship to work, some kind of faster-than-light communication is clearly necessary. Thankfully they have a device called the Ansible, but doesn’t that, sort of, violate the laws of physics?

Enter Brian Cox, a handsome, forty-something TV presenter married to a glamorous American TV star. In the mid-nineties he played keyboard with the pop band D:Ream, a group which had several hits in the UK charts including the number one, “Things Can Only Get Better”, later used as a political election anthem.

Brian’s other day-job is as Physics Professor at Manchester University in the UK while he also works at that Cathedral of Modern Science, the Large Hadron Collider. At Christmas, the BBC arranged for Professor Cox to lecture on Quantum Mechanics to a large bunch of celebs. These are normally ghastly affairs, with B-list comedians and big-haired reality-TV contestants giggling they never could understand math. The talk, now on YouTube, is in most parts a brave attempt to explain modern thinking to people who really haven’t a clue. But one passage strikes a jarring note.

Brian Cox is rubbing a large and expensive diamond in his hand. He’s claiming to show that the increasing energy of the electrons in the diamond is affecting every other electron in the universe instantaneously. Here is what he says.

“See, let me take this diamond, and let me just heat it up a bit between my hands. Just gently warming it up, and put a bit of energy into it, so I’m shifting the electrons around. Some of the electrons are jumping into different energy levels. But this shift of the electron configuration inside the diamond has consequences, because the sum total of all the electrons in the universe must respect Pauli.

“Therefore, every electron around every atom in the universe must be shifted as I heat the diamond up to make sure that none of them end up in the same energy level. When I heat this diamond up all the electrons across the universe instantly but imperceptibly change their energy levels.”

If this appeal to the Pauli Exclusion Principle were true, then someone in the Andromeda Galaxy 2.6 million light years away could presumably take a length of copper wire (which contains plenty of electrons), hook it up to an amplifier and get an output whenever Brian rubbed his bling. The Ansible at last!

Professor Cox apparently misspoke. As a number of blogs (written by uglier and less famous men here and here) gleefully pointed out, this interpretation is wrong both in quantum mechanics itself, and would violate special relativity. It doesn’t matter whether you appeal to Pauli, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (the Infinite Improbability Drive in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide‘) or to quantum entanglement, faster-than-light communication is out. If FTL communication were ever proved possible (think of those pesky Italian neutrinos) this would open the door to all kinds of paradoxes – as you could then signal into the past.

Since sitting down to write this article I noticed that Professor Cox hasn’t given up easily. In the comments section on this blog Cox sticks to his guns, saying that he was really talking about universe-wide non-local quantum correlations. He’s right about those, but they can’t be used for sending information around. What are your thoughts?

  • Roy Simpson

    Nigel,
    Interesting debate here (at least for UK audiences). Prof Cox does need to explain rather more here, even more than in his corresponding book. His argument seems to be that the Pauli Exclusion Principle can have a long range effect across the Universe. As scientists know the Pauli principle is normally only considered for individual atoms or (as in his book and lecture) for materials like Crystals. To extend it like this to the entire Universe, would if valid have consequences: it could imply a kind of long-range Pauli Force (the long-range version of the force that holds up Neutron Stars) for example.
    As with all these Quantum Entanglement topics there is a separate question as to whether any long-range Entanglement can be used to send FTL messages. Strictly Cox didnt say that as the reference was to “inperceptble” changes – which presumably means that nothing could measure or observe these changes…

    • Professor Brian Cox is now, I think, a global superstar. The blogs I referenced? – Two were American and the third Czech. Given the nature of the audience (and I guess the lay TV audience) I think he was just highlighting quantum non-locality … which sort of plays into a fuzzy, holistic, ‘everything is connected’ if you’re not careful :-).