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The more one probes the universe at smaller and smaller scales, the weirder matter and energy seem to behave.

But this strangeness may limit its own extent in quantum mechanics, the theory describing the behavior of matter at an infinitesimal level, according to a new study by an ex-hacker and a physicist.

“We’re interested in this question of why quantum theory is as weird as it is, but not weirder,” said physicist Jonathan Oppenheim of the University of Cambridge. “It was an unnatural question for people to have asked even 20 years ago. The reason we’re able to get these results is that we’re thinking of things in the way a hacker might think of things.”

A lot of eerie things happen in the quantum world. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, for instance, it’s impossible to know everything about a quantum particle. The more precisely you know an electron’s position, the less precisely you know its momentum. Stranger still, the electron doesn’t even have properties like position and momentum until an observer measures them. It’s as if the particle exists in a plurality of worlds, and only by making a measurement can we force it to choose one.

In another weirdness, two particles can be bound together such that observing one causes changes in the other, even when they’re physically far apart. This quantum embrace, called entanglement (or more generally, nonlocality), made Einstein nervous. He famously called the phenomenon “spooky action at a distance.”

But there’s a limit to how useful nonlocality can be. Two separated people can’t send messages faster than the speed of light.

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Category: Science