A week or so back, the Princeton Global Consciousness Project made the news again with the usual claims about human consciousness having measurable effects on quantum random number generators. The already questionable research seemed a little more unbelievable this time around with the new claim that the REGs are detecting events before they happen. For some reason I started reading some the papers on the GCP site and got interested in the whole thing.
Basically, what they’re claiming is that you can take a cryptography-grade random number generator and influence the output by, well, wishful thinking. The RNG needs to be a real, non-deterministic random number generator, a deterministic pseudo random number generator won’t do. And, not suprisingly, the only non-deterministic sources of random numbers appear to rely on quantum effects. The devices are alleged to be fairly simple. Take a semiconductor with a PN junction like a tunneling or zener diode, give it a reverse bias until you get quantum noise, amplify the noise and refine it into a series of ones and zeros.
It seems like it ought to be pretty easy to duplicate, especially if they provided a schematic of the circuit they’re using. Oops. Only a general description of the RNG they use is provided. I emailed Roger Nelson and asked if a schematic or more detailed description was available. Interestingly, it turns out they keep the exact plans a closely guarded secret but they will sell you one if you want. Seems like that makes independent verification a bit harder. We blew up a couple of zener diodes at the RBNO Tuesday night playing around with the idea. At one point we did get some interesting looking noise but someone suggested it was probably just thermal noise.
So, I’ve since looked around on the web for some clues on how these things should be biased to get good quantum noise without killing the diode. I learned that in most commercial RNGs, two noise sources are XOR’d together. This is done to improve the quality of the random numbers. Now, it seems to me this would also have the side-effect of diminishing the ability to detect non-random influences on both noise sources. It would make more sense to me to AND two or more sources together. It would make the device useless as a random number generator but should amplify any non-random outside influence. I think some of the more critical studies of the project support this in that they note attempts to influence the RNG to produce 1s are much more successful than wishing it to produce 0s. If the effect is caused by some sort of quantum activity in neurons of a nearby human brain, as some believe, that would make sense. In other words, running a human brain in the vicinity of a sensitive quantum device may interfere with it in the same way that running a Tesla coil near an AM radio interferes with it.
It’s been a long time since I had my last class in physics, so I figured I better read up on the subject. While browsing the local used book store for a book on quantum physics, I ran across one by someone who is something of an authority on the subject, “Physics and Philosophy” by Werner Heisenberg. It was published in 1958 and includes all the basics of the Copenhagen Interpretation. There’s nothing on the newer ones like the Many Worlds Interpretation, of course but I believe the Copenhagen Interpretation is still the one accepted by most physicists. I’ve been reading the book aloud to Susan and it has turned out to be quite entertaining. A couple of sample quotes:
“One day Planck and Rubens met for tea in Planck’s home and compared Rubens’ latest results with a new formula suggested by Planck. This was the discovery of Planck’s law of heat radiation.”
“I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?”
Along the way Heisenberg covers all the early theories of matter proposed by the Greeks and discusses ways in which relativity and quantum physics allows science to invalidate or disprove philosophical ideas proposed by Kant and others.