It took until the 1960s before there were any clues to an answer. John Bell, a brilliant Irish physicist who did not live to receive the Nobel Prize, devised a scheme to test whether the notion of hidden variables made sense.
Bell produced an equation now known as Bell’s inequality that is always correct — and only correct – for hidden variable theories, and not always for quantum mechanics. Thus, if Bell’s equation was found not to be satisfied in a real-world experiment, local hidden variable theories can be ruled out as an explanation for quantum entanglement.
The experiments of the 2022 Nobel laureates, particularly those of Alain Aspect, were the first tests of the Bell inequality. The experiments used entangled photons, rather than pairs of an electron and a positron, as in many thought experiments. The results conclusively ruled out the existence of hidden variables, a mysterious attribute that would predetermine the states of entangled particles. Collectively, these and many follow-up experiments have vindicated quantum mechanics. Objects can be correlated over large distances in ways that physics before quantum mechanics cannot explain.
Importantly, there is also no conflict with special relativity, which forbids faster-than-light communication. The fact that measurements over vast distances are correlated does not imply that information is transmitted between the particles. Two parties far apart performing measurements on entangled particles cannot use the phenomenon to pass along information faster than the speed of light.
Today, physicists continue to research quantum entanglement and investigate potential practical applications. Although quantum mechanics can predict the probability of a measurement with incredible accuracy, many researchers remain skeptical that it provides a complete description of reality. One thing is certain, though. Much remains to be said about the mysterious world of quantum mechanics.
Andreas Muller is an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida. He receives funding from the National Science Foundation.