Friday, November 7, 2014

Bell's Theorem Blues

Irish physicist John Stewart Bell (1928-1990)
 During the month of November the Naughton Museum at Queen's College in Belfast, Ireland, is hosting events and exhibits related to one of their most famous alumni, Belfast-born physicist John Stewart Bell. The festival is entitled Action at a Distance: the Life and Legacy of John Stewart Bell. The director of the museum, Shan McAnena, contacted me for advice and as a possible exhibitor. Her exhibits were to be centered not around physics but on art inspired by John Bell's work. Shan was interested in me not for my books about quantum physics, nor for my published papers on Bell's theorem but for something I wrote long ago as a joke.

In my book Quantum Reality which describes attempts to conceptualize quantum theory in human understandable terms, I write a lot about John Bell and his famous theorem. During this book's progress I exchanged letters with this brilliant physicist and Bell even wrote a blurb for Quantum Reality (along with Heinz Pagels and Isaac Azimov). Finally at the end of the book I included a song that I wrote that summed up Bell's Theorem in a nutshell. This song Bell's Theorem Blues was what Shan McAnena wanted to include in the Queen's College tribute.

A bit about Bell's Theorem and why it is so extraordinary: Most accomplishments in physics are either about theory or experiment -- some new piece of mathematics that explains the facts or some new piece of machinery that permits us to measure those facts. Bell's Theorem however is neither about theory nor about experiment but about Reality Itself. It is very unusual to find a sane person that attempts to speak coherently about Reality Itself. But Bell not only spoke about Deep Reality, he actually MATHEMATICALLY PROVED something important about this invisible nature which lies beneath everyone of our theories and experiments. Bell's accomplishment is unique. I challenge you to find another human being in the history of human thought who has produced anything even close to what this astonishing Irishman has done.

And what was the physics community's response to Bell's remarkable achievement? His physics colleagues either ignored Bell's work (which was initially published exactly 50 years ago in a new and obscure short-lived little journal called Physics). Shortly after it was published, physicists either ignored Bell's Theorem-- or dismissed it entirely as "mere philosophy".

Fifty years later, the importance of Bell's Theorem is generally recognized and has inspired work in quantum computing, quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation and many aspects of physics that employ quantum entanglement. (Part of the story of Bell's Theorem's rise from obscurity to stardom is told in David Kaiser's book How the Hippies Saved Physics.)

So I wrote this song as a joke at the end of my book. In one of his last videoed physics lectures at CERN in 1990, organized by Antoine Suarez, Bell actually shows off the text of Bell's Theorem Blues to an audience of physicists. But Bell quickly adds  "I'm not going to sing it." Bell merely quotes it. In his Irish accent.

Boulder Creek Blues Trio: Galt, Bowers and Rush
The Belfast museum required a song, so I persuaded my favorite local musicians to perform this little bit of musical physics. One Sunday morning in October at pianist Jack Bowers's Santa Cruz, CA, studio, the Boulder Creek Blues Trio consisting of Joy Rush (vocal), Jack Bowers (piano) and George Galt (harmonica) transformed for the first time my words on paper into a musical quantum number. You can hear Bell's Theorem Blues here (full lyrics plus an audio file). Sheet music, an mp3 recording and a video of the recording session were shipped to the Naughton Museum in Belfast to be presented as "art inspired by Bell's Theorem". Here's the first verse of Bell's Theorem Blues:

Doctor Bell say we connected
He call me on the phone
Doctor Bell say united
He call me on the phone
But if we really together, baby,
How come I feel so all alone?

A young John Bell on his Ariel Motorcycle
Here's the BBC report on the Belfast celebration and here's an account of the honoring of John Bell by the Royal Irish Academy. Several researchers whose work was inspired by Bell's Theorem are giving public lectures at various Belfast venues. A motion to name a street in the Titanic quarter after Bell was denied by the city council because of their policy not to name streets after people. As a compromise the city fathers voted to name the street Bell's Theorem Crescent, possibly the only street in the world named after a mathematical theorem. The City of Belfast also designated Nov 4 as "John Bell Day" to commemorate that big day 50 years ago when John Bell published his famous proof which demonstrates that reality is non-local.

Belfast City Hall illuminated in rainbow colors to honor John Bell.


michael nauenberg said...

that's a great blog and song Nick.
It has the best photo of Bell that I have seen
why don't you sing it and include the audio
in your blog

AliceInBondageLand said...

Looking forward to the audio. :-)

nick herbert said...

The lyric page contains also an audio file at the top where you can hear Joy Rush and her band perform.