The 100th Monkey Effect – and Science

The 100th monkey effect, which may not be an effect at all, is about non-physical communication of data.  The original 100th monkey effect supposedly started with a single monkey, in a group of monkeys on an isolated island, who discovered that washing the fruit left on the beach by monkey researches led to a less gritty meal.  This single monkey was of course copied by other monkeys in the group.  Now comes the strange bit, it was reported that other monkeys on other isolated islands then subsequently, and spontaneously, started washing their fruit – and that there had been no physical contact with the original monkey group – i.e. there had been no movement of monkeys from one island to the other.  So it seems at first sight that a new thought or idea when taken up by enough sentient creatures can somehow spontaneously appear in other remote sentient creatures.  Yes it’s spooky Mulder stuff, but it has not been conclusively proven that it even happens.

Except.  On many occasions in my scientific career I have come up with the most extreme (nutty if you like) ideas, only to find that similar nutty ideas have appeared around the world (mostly in Europe I have to say) within a couple of weeks of my initial thought.  Now this is nothing new, and it has been noted that in science when something’s “time has come” it seems to miraculously appear in several remote places almost at the same time.

Linked to this observation was another possible pseudoscientific observation.  Does the Universe evolve with the thought of man?  Do things happen as they do because that is what is expected of them?  When we put together an apparatus to carry out an experiment to find out something new, what do we do?  Do we throw together every bit of measuring kit we have and then chuck in a few lasers and bits of radioactive material – turn everything on and see what happens?  No of course not, but it might well be that such a “random experiment” would give us the most interesting answers.  On the contrary what we do is build the experiment SPECIFICALLY to answer the question we have.  Is it then any wonder that the experiment usually gives something along the lines that we anticipate?  Is it really any wonder that eventually we found the Higgs Boson?  The Omega Minus was famously predicted – and voila eventually found.

Where is this leading?  Try to keep with it for just a bit longer.  The greatest experiments are the “thought experiments” like the ancient Greek Philosophers, and Einstein used to undertake.  Using pure thought to delve into the mysteries of the Universe is the greatest thing out – and then to find that the results of this brain power alone can lead to experimental verification of these groundbreaking ideas has got to be wonderful, hasn’t it?  Or is it just that the Universe falls into line not necessarily with what the original great thinker came up with, but with what the current (popular) thinking is – as by the time confirmatory (or otherwise) experiments have taken place, a LOT of people are now aware of the original great idea.

Now this is an incredibly way out suggestion I know, but I have two things that strongly support this weird idea, one of which was an experiment I personally undertook at Philips Research Laboratories.  I had put together a pretty complicated piece of kit to measure the lifetime of deep-level impurities in Silicon when subjected to infrared radiation.  Now it doesn’t actually matter what that means – what does matter is that I put the kit together, put the Silicon sample into the kit, and started my measurements.  Now at this time I actually HAD NO IDEA of the results I was expecting to get from the apparatus – the work had been done before, elsewhere, but I hadn’t read it up.  No matter – I just got on with the experiment.  What happened?  Well the results I got out were basically rubbish, when I plotted out the basic parameters the points were all over the place and I couldn’t get at the lifetime I wanted to measure at all.  I stopped the experiment to go to lunch and before I came back to the experiment I went to the library to read up the results previously obtained by other people.  You can see what’s going to happen a mile off can’t you?  When I came back to the experiment later that afternoon and carried on with the measurements out comes the data which fits very nicely on an exponential curve to give me – quelle surprise – the lifetime I was expecting to measure.  Sounds like a made up story – you have only my word for it that, that is exactly how it happened.

O.K. so what’s the second thing then?  Well, we have perhaps the second greatest thought experiment of all time, Special Relativity, and we have this jumped up new theory called Quantum Mechanics. Fundamental to the Special Theory of Relativity is locality, or in plain English no information can propagate at velocities faster than light.  Experimental tests of the results of Special Relativity have confirmed the theory since the day it was published, over a hundred years ago.  Einstein really didn’t like Quantum Mechanics, and the Quantum Mechanics we know today, although refined a great deal, still has these fundamental niggles that upset Einstein so much.  In fact Einstein was so cheesed off with Quantum Mechanics that he kept coming up with more and more ingenious thought experiments to topple the theory.  And the so-called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox was his BIGGY.  Now we don’t need to go into the fine details about what the paradox is all about beyond this.  Einstein had his Special Theory and the accompanying Locality Principle which had been experimentally verified to high precision.  Einstein also worked out a Quantum Mechanical experiment that if it worked (i.e. gave results as predicted by Quantum Mechanics) would require non-locality to be at work, in other words, information would need to be sent between remote, separated objects that had interacted at an earlier time, at faster than light speeds!!  Good old Albert had got them by the goolies on this one eh?

So, in order to test out what actually happens in “reality” (you should now be questioning what is meant by reality) we need to put together an experiment to make this measurement on two remote (light-line separated) objects.  And to do this we need to wait a few decades for Alain Aspect to come along and carry out a meticulous set of extremely difficult experiments to see what happens when you measure certain properties of two remotely separated particles that had interacted at an earlier time.

Now let’s get this straight – nobody right up until this point had a clue what the result of this experiment would be.  The apparatus, not being randomly assembled from various bits and pieces had been carefully thought out and put together just for this one experiment (remember the stuff I wrote above).  So was it a great surprise then that results of these truly groundbreaking experiments confirmed that the Quantum Mechanical (non-local) result was the one that was actually measured?  This by the way is where Einstein’s famous “Spooky action at a distance” comment comes from.

What have we done here?  We have pushed Nature into a corner and she HAD to come back with an answer, one way or the other.  It is no great surprise (to me at least) that in a Quantum Mechanical experiment set up to measure a Quantum Mechanical result by a Quantum Mechanics expert the result was the one predicted by Quantum Mechanics.  And yet this result implies non-locality, something that Einstein and Special Relativity can’t tolerate.  We have a pretty big disconnect here.

And we have no peer-reviewed, published, answer to this disconnect at the present time either.  Except I do 🙂 The Universe appears to fall in line with what the currently accepted ideas (theories) say should happen, and it appears to do so even to the ridiculous extent of agreeing to two mutually exclusive ideas (theories)!!  This calls into question what we understand by reality, and it is extremely interesting that the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiments of Aspect calls into question one of the following as being incorrect!  Either 1) Induction or 2) Locality or 3) Reality.  I plump for option 3 personally.


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