|The only photo in existence|
that shows me in high heels.
This is an excellent question which you didn’t ask. I’ll answer it anyway because confusing entangled states with superpositions is a very common mistake. And an unfortunate one: without knowing the difference between entanglement and superposition the most interesting phenomena of quantum mechanics remain impossible to understand – so listen closely, or you’ll forever remain stuck in the 19th century.Let us start by decoding the word “superposition.” Physicists work with equations, the solutions of which describe the system they are interested in. That might be, for example, an electromagnetic wave going through a double slit. If you manage to solve the equations for that system, you can then calculate what you will observe on the screen.
A “superposition” is simply a sum of two solutions, possibly with constant factors in front of the terms. Now, some equations, like those of quantum mechanics, have the nice property that the sum of two solutions is also a solution, where each solution corresponds to a different setup of your experiment. But that superpositions of solutions are also solutions has nothing to do with quantum mechanics specifically. You can also, for example, superpose electromagnetic waves – solutions to the sourceless Maxwell equations – and the superposition is again a solution to Maxwell’s equations. So to begin with, when we are dealing with quantum states, we should more carefully speak of “quantum superpositions.”
Quantum superpositions are different from non-quantum superpositions in that they are valid solutions to the equations of quantum mechanics, but they are never being measured. That’s the whole mystery of the measurement process: the “collapse” of a superposition of solutions to a single solution.
Take for example a lonely photon that goes through a double slit. It is a superposition of two states that each describe a wave emerging from one of the slits. Yet, if you measure the photon on the screen, it’s always in one single point. The superposition of solutions in quantum mechanics tells you merely the probability for measuring the photon at one specific point which, for the double-slit, reproduces the interference pattern of the waves.
But I cheated...
Because what you think of as a quantum superposition depends on what you want to measure. A state might be a superposition for one measurement, but not for another. Indeed the whole expression “quantum superposition” is entirely meaningless without saying what is being superposed. A photon can be in a superposition of many different positions, and yet not be in a superposition of momenta. So is it or is it not a superposition? That’s entirely due to your choice of observable – even before you have observed anything.
All this is just to say that whether a particle is or isn’t in a superposition is ambiguous. You can always make its superposition go away by just wanting it to go away and changing the notation. Or, slightly more technical, you can always remove a superposition of basis states just by defining the superposition as a new basis state. It is for this reason somewhat unfortunate that superpositions – the cat being both dead and alive – often serve as examples for quantum-ness. You could equally well say the cat is in one state of dead-and-aliveness, not in a superposition of two states one of which is dead and one alive.
Now to entanglement.
Entanglement is a correlation between different parts of a system. The simplest case is a correlation between particles, but really you can entangle all kinds of things and properties of things. You find out whether a system has entanglement by dividing it up into two subsystems. Then you consider both systems separately. If the two subsystems were entangled, then looking at them separately will inevitably reduce the information. In physics speak, you “trace out” one subsystem and are left with a mixed state for the other subsystem.
The best known example is a pair of particles, each with either spin +1 or -1. You don’t know which particle has which spin, but you do know that the sum of both has to be zero. So if you have your particles in two separate boxes, you have a state that is either +1 in the left box and -1 in the right box, or -1 in the left box and +1 in the right box.
Now divide the system up in two subsystems that are the two boxes, and throw away one of them. What do you know about the remaining box? Well, all you know is that it’s either +1 or -1, and you have lost the information that was contained in the link between the two boxes, the one that said “If this is +1, then this must be -1, and the other way round.” That information is gone for good. If you crunch the numbers, you find that correlations between quantum states can be stronger than correlations between non-quantum states could ever be. It is the existence of these strong correlations that tests of Bell’s theorem have looked for – and confirmed.
Most importantly, whether a system has entanglement between two subsystems is a yes or no question. You cannot create entanglement by a choice of observable, and you can’t make it go away either. It is really entanglement – the spooky action at a distance – that is the embodiment of quantum-ness, and not the dead-and-aliveness of superpositions.
[For a more technical explanation, I can recommend these notes by Robert Helling, who used to blog but now has kids.]