The Rules Of Entanglement, Reining In Stem Cell Claims, And Why You Shouldn’t Lick Your Turtle

6:51 minutes


The idea of quantum entanglement — the way in which two entangled particles are somehow linked across space and can communicate with each other — is one of the more head-scratching parts of physics. Einstein dismissively once called the idea of entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” But now, a group of physicists has shown mathematically that any law of nature that is backwards-compatible with existing ideas of classical physics also requires the existence of entanglement. In other words, entanglement isn’t just a weird trick, but is deeply connected to the way the universe works. The work was published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

[These particles are behaving badly.]

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo, joins Ira to talk about the entanglement research and other stories from the week in science, including a group that traced back an astronomical report from 1437 to a specific group of stars, an FDA crackdown on deceptive stem cell treatment claims, and a CDC warning about salmonella infections linked to pet turtles.


Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer at Gizmodo in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll be talking about Hurricane Harvey and adapting to more intense storms in the era of climate change.

But first, the idea of quantum entanglement is one of the more head-scratching parts of physics. To me, it is the most head-scratching part of physics, the idea two untangled particles are somehow linked and instantaneously communicate with each other. It’s so mind boggling that Einstein called it spooky action at a distance.

And now a group of mathematicians say that they’ve proven that the idea of entanglement may be an essential part of physics. Joining me to talk about that story and other selected short subjects in science is Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo. He’s back here in our New York studios. Welcome to the program.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Hey, Ira. How are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: I know that you find entanglement as weird as I do, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I do. I love entanglement. I mean, it’s just crazy to think that these two particles that are interacted and then get separated somehow share this like weird, crazy relationship between one another.

IRA FLATOW: Spooky action.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Spooky action.

IRA FLATOW: So what did the researchers actually prove? Tell us what they were proving.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure. So basically, what they said was that any theory that collapses back down into the classical physics that you learned about in high school requires entanglement, not just as sort of a mathematical thing we observe, but more just this innate property of the universe. And any extension of quantum mechanics or any other theory, be it whatever it has to be, will still collapse into this– you know, will still require this entanglement.

IRA FLATOW: So in other words, you have to make entanglement part of discussion whenever we talk about the universe?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You have to deal with it. I mean–

IRA FLATOW: The universe, you have to deal with it. Deal with it!

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, exactly.

IRA FLATOW: So does it make it any easier, though, then to understand what entanglement is or how it works?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I’ve come to sort of the conclu– you know, I sort of just go to sleep with it and then forget about it. I mean, it exists. And we have to deal.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah There have been researchers working on practical applications of entanglement for communications, the Chinese super satelitte?


IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, yeah. So I mean, there is a satellite in space right now. And they’ve actually entangled particles between the ground and the satellite with the idea is, eventually, we might be able to use this link for quantum cryptography, send really well-encrypted messages. And the idea is that, if these particles are entangled over this distance and somebody hacks the hacks this link, then they would be able to tell the message isn’t secure anymore.

IRA FLATOW: I know you hate to move, but we have to move on to–


IRA FLATOW: –a better time like this week, and specifically, that astronomers have traced back an old stellar event. Tell us about that.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, that’s right. So 500 years ago– more than 500 years ago– some Korean astronomers spotted this strange, bright star in the constellation Scorpius that disappeared after around two weeks. And scientists then went back and looked at the data to try and find the source of this weird stellar event and basically found that a pair of stars that were a little bit outside of the leftover explosion had moved. And they were able to trace these two stars right back into the middle.

And it’s basically a companion star and a white dwarf orbiting one of another. And then one sucks a lot of matter of the other and they explode.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so they actually had to go back and look at old photo plates and things like that, or records, or how did they find it that it had moved?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, they have this plate from 1923. And you sort of put one plate on top of the other. And you could see it move.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So this isn’t a supernova. Just it’s a star exploding.


IRA FLATOW: Just a plain old nova.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s like a nuclear explosion on the surface of the white dwarf star.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And in other news– let’s move on to other news. The FDA has some words about stem cells.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right, yeah. They’ve been cracking down on a couple of clinics, especially in California and Florida, who have been doing sort of unapproved stem cell treatments for people. Supposedly, they can help in certain ways. But you might have heard of one of these clinics, actually. There was a case of them trying to treat macular degeneration that lead to blindness.

IRA FLATOW: So they’ve shut them down, or they’re–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They’ve sent them strongly worded letters.

IRA FLATOW: A letter from the lawyer.


IRA FLATOW: A letter form the lawyers. But there have been cases where treatments have led to stuff they didn’t expect, right? That’s why they’re shutting them down. We really don’t know enough about the effects yet.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. We’re pretty preliminary– you know, we’re really early on in these treatments. There are some things that we’re working on, potentially for treating it in Parkinson’s disease. There are certain blood and immune system disorders that might be able to see a benefit from stem cells as well.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that Parkinson’s study.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So it’s just actually this past week that they’re reporting that, in monkeys only, they injected stem cells into their brains. And they saw sort of an alleviation of the symptoms.

IRA FLATOW: Mm, yeah, because stem cells is right on the cutting edge–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, right.

IRA FLATOW: –of all kinds of stuff. Finally, let me see if I got this right. There’s a warning about your turtle. The CDC is warning us about my turtle.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Anybody’s, not just my turtle.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Just your turtle.

IRA FLATOW: Your turtle.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So yeah, the CDC issued a warning that there was a salmonella outbreak, 37 cases in 13 states since March. There haven’t been any deaths yet. And most people do end up feeling better after a few days. But they are worried, especially for the young and the elderly. So the CDC recommends washing your hands after playing with your pet turtle and not buying small turtles as pets for your friends.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that used to be a thing when I was a kid. Is it still a thing buying little turtles in a pet store? And I guess you can get it off the shell of the turtle, the salmonella.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, right.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t lick your turtle.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Don’t lick your turtle. That’s what I always say.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about what to expect this week. We were talking about Harvey. But there is another hurricane out there that is heading in this direction.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: There is. There is.

IRA FLATOW: Irene is–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Not Irene. It’s Hurricane Irma.

IRA FLATOW: Irma, Irma.


IRA FLATOW: I just got the Is mixed up. I know the Harvey isn’t I, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s a strong hurricane right now in the Atlantic, that it’s moving. And right now, you know, there’s a lot of different tracks that it could take. We’re not quite sure if it’ll hit Florida, or Bermuda, or New York. But it’s strong. I mean, we’re talking, I think as of yesterday, a Category 3. I’m not sure if it’s been updated yet. But it’s really something to look out for.

IRA FLATOW: And something we’ll be looking for next week is the end of the Cassini mission, right? That’s going to be very sad.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. We’re already sort of crying some tears over it at Gizmodo. We’re sad about it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, we’re going to do a special next Friday on that. So thank you. Thank you, Ryan.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Awesome. Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo.

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