Why doesn’t the world make sense? At the fundamental level of atoms and subatomic particles, the familiar “classical” physics that accounts for how objects move around gives way to quantum physics, with new rules that defy intuition. Traditionally these are expressed as paradoxes: particles that can be in two places at once, cats that are simultaneously alive and dead, apparently impossible faster-than-light signaling between distant particles. But quantum rules are perfectly logical and consistent—the “paradoxes” are the result of our trying to impose on them the everyday reasoning of classical physics.
What’s more, over the past several decades we’ve come to understand that the classical and quantum worlds don’t exactly operate by “different” rules. Rather, the classical world emerges from the quantum in a comprehensible way: you might say that classical physics is simply what quantum physics looks like at the human scale.
All the same, we’re confronted with the question: why is the quantum world the way it is? Why do fundamental particles dictate this set of rules and not some other? Normally that question carries an implication that quantum particles are being a bit perverse by not behaving like billiard balls, reassuringly solid and definite and thing-like. But that might be the wrong way to think about it. Last December, I spoke with Romanian-British physicist Sandu Popescu of Bristol University in England, who told me that things could have been even stranger than quantum.
In fact, Sandu said, we’re not even completely sure that things aren’t even stranger. Maybe we just haven’t detected this extra strangeness yet.
Scribbling on his whiteboard with infectious enthusiasm, Sandu explained that this hypothetical “super-quantum” world comes into view by thinking about what now seems to be the defining characteristic of quantum theory: nonlocality.