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Psst! Learn something

A favorite line of mine in all of theater is the advice the magician Merlin gives to a depressed and demoralized young King Arthur in the play "Camelot."

"Learn something," says Merlin, in effect saying that the cares and trials of this world will be less burdensome if you know a little more about it. It is advice I have followed since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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Our cover story on a new breakthrough in physics (right) pushes this advice to the limit.

Physics is a subject I treat warily. Just when I think I'm on the threshold of learning something, the ground beneath my feet gives way to a mathematical formula 1010 power beyond my comprehension, and I wind up more confused than when I started.

In 1935, after quantum mechanics had been developed, Albert Einstein and two colleagues published a paper showing that under certain circumstances quantum mechanics predicted a breakdown of locality. Locality says that only one object with the same set of properties can be in one place at a time.

Obvious enough.

But the formula suggested that a particle at one location could instantly influence another particle far away because of identical properties. This was too much even for Einstein, and he called it "spooky action at a distance." He wrote it off as proof that that quantum mechanics was incomplete.

Well, the world got a little spookier - and a lot more interesting - recently.

Three Danish physicists designed an experiment that resulted in trillions of atoms comprising the same properties being in two different places simultaneously.

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"Learn something." Good advice.

E-mail Ideas@csps.com.