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Bill Nye Is Talking Out of His Ass on Quantum Physics

Traveling back in time? Harvesting energy from black holes?
March 26, 2016, 8:10pm
Image: Will Folsom/Flickr

Here is a video in which Bill Nye the Science Guy answers the question, "How will quantum mechanics change the world?"

Bill Nye's answer goes like this:

Tom: Hi, Bill. Tom, from Western Australia. If quantum entanglement or quantum spookiness can allow us to transmit information instantaneously, that is faster than the speed of light, how do you think this could, dare I say it, change the world?

Bill Nye: Tom, I love you man. Thanks for the tip of the hat there, the turn of phrase. Will quantum entanglement change the world? If this turns out to be a real thing, well, or if we can take advantage of it, it seems to me the first thing that will change is computing. We'll be able to make computers that work extraordinarily fast. But it carries with it, for me, this belief that we'll be able to go back in time; that we'll be able to harness energy somehow from black holes and other astrophysical phenomenon that we observe in the cosmos but not so readily here on earth. We'll see. Tom, in Western Australia, maybe you'll be the physicist that figures quantum entanglement out at its next level and create practical applications. But for now, I'm not counting on it to change the world.

Oh, my.

First of all, quantum entanglement is a real thing. It is really real, in fact. There is a great deal of active research and experimentation occurring on and with quantum entanglement, and physicists have most assuredly observed its effects. This is settled.

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It's also pretty well settled that we can take advantage of the phenomenon in the form of quantum computing, though the very basic principle of it is maybe better explained in terms of quantum superposition (of Schrödinger's live-dead cat fame), which is the more general version of quantum entanglement.

But a better example of quantum entanglement in technology might be quantum encryption, in which information is shuttled around in certain physical states fragile enough to collapse at even the slightest hint of eavesdropping. Entanglement-based quantum key distribution was described in a protocol released way back in 1991 (the E91 Protocol).

When we start going back in time things really take a nosedive. I guess Nye is just pulling from his ass the popular but incorrect interpretation of quantum entanglement as faster-than-light information transmission. Information does not move faster than light. Energy does not move faster than light. No thing goes faster than light. This is some really old news.

I saw this on physicist Sabine Hossenfelder's Backreactions blog, and her response is much better. For one thing: "I have no fucking clue what Bill thinks this has to do with harnessing energy from black holes … " Me neither.

Her response to the Science Guy himself;

Every day I get emails from people who want to convince me that they have found a way to create a wormhole, harness vacuum energy, travel back in time, or that they know how to connect the conscious mind with the quantum, whatever that means. They often argue with quotes from papers or textbooks which they have badly misunderstood. But they no longer have to do this. Now they can quote Bill The Science Guy who said that quantum entanglement would allow us to harness energy from black holes and to travel back in time.

Maybe you were joking and I didn't get it. But if it's a joke, let me tell you that nobody in my newsfeed seems to have found it funny.

Yeah, not so much.