Bell, John, and Bell's Theorem

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John Stewart Bell (19281990), a truly deep and serious thinker, was one of the leading physicists of the twentieth century. He became famous for his discovery that quantum mechanics implies that nature is nonlocal, that is, that there are physical influences between events that propagate faster than light.

From 1960 until his death Bell worked at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN; European Laboratory for Particle Physics) in Geneva, Switzerland, on the physics of particle accelerators, making a number of important contributions to high-energy physics and quantum field theory. Noteworthy was his discovery in 1969, together with Roman W. Jackiw, of the so-called "Bell-Jackiw-Adler" anomaly (discovered independently by Stephen Adler), a mechanism explaining physical effects such as neutral pion decay (which are unexplainable on the basis of the symmetries of the classical field Lagrangian), in terms of an "anomalous" term arising from the renormalization of quantum field theory. Since then this mechanism has become an important cornerstone of quantum field theory. Another important contribution was the argument he gave in 1967 for why weak interactions should be described using a gauge theory.

John Bell was one of the leading expertsperhaps the leading experton the foundations of quantum mechanics. The book collecting his articles on this subject, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics (1987), is unsurpassed for clarity and depth and it is still the best reference for whoever wishes to learn about the field.

Bell strongly opposed the "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum physics, according to which macroscopic objects, such as chairs and planets, do exist out there, but electrons and other microscopic particles do not. According to the Copenhagen view, the world is divided into two realms, macro and micro, "classical" and "quantum," logical and contradictoryor, as Bell put it in one of his essays, into "speakable" and "unspeakable." Along with Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Louis de Broglie, and David Bohm, Bell was one of the few physicists compelled by his conscience to reject the Copenhagen interpretation.

Bell emphasized that the empirical facts of quantum physics do not at all force us to renounce realism. There is, in fact, a realist theory (Bohmian mechanics, also known as the de BroglieBohm theory) that accountsinsofar as the nonrelativistic theory is concernedfor all of these facts in a most elegant way. This theory describes a world in which electrons, quarks, and the like are point particles, always having positions that move in a manner dictated by the wave function. It should be taught to students, Bell insisted, as a legitimate alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy. After GianCarlo Ghirardi, Alberto Rimini, and Tullio Weber succeeded in formulating in 1986 a second kind of realist theory, Bell encouraged the further development of this theory as well (1987). He thought that such a theory contained the seeds of a reconciliation of quantum mechanics with fundamental Lorentz invariance, and thus a resolution of the tension between quantum mechanics and relativity that arose from his own work on quantum nonlocality.

In 1964, Bell proved that any serious version of quantum theory (regardless of whether or not it is based on microscopic realism) must violate locality. He showed that if nature is governed by the predictions of quantum theory, the "locality principle," precluding any sort of instantaneous (or superluminal) action-at-a-distance, is simply wrong, and the world is nonlocal. The theoretical analysis leading to such a conclusion is commonly known as Bell's theorem.

Bell's theorem involves two parts. The first part is the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (1935) argument applied to the simplified version considered by David Bohm (1951), the EPRB experiment: a pair of spin one-half particles, prepared in a spin-singlet state, are moving freely in opposite directions. Measurements are made, say by Stern-Gerlach magnets, on selected components of the spins of the two particles. The spin-singlet state has the following property: whenever the component of the spin σ 1 in any direction α is measured for one of the two particles, a measurement of the same component of the spin σ2 of the other particle will give with certainty the opposite value. For such a state the assumption of locality implies the existence of what are often called noncontextual hidden variables. More precisely, it implies, for the spin-singlet state, the existence of random variables

which can be regarded as corresponding to preexisting values of all possible spin components of the two particles. In particular, focusing on components in only three directions a, b, and c for each particle, locality implies the existence of six random variables
such that
and, more generally,
, where the qαβ = (1 + α · β )/2 = cos2(θ/2) are the corresponding quantum mechanical probabilities, with θ the angle between α and β.

The argument for this conclusion can be expressed as follows: The existence of such random variables amounts to the idea that measurements of the spin components reveal preexisting values (the ). Assuming locality, this is implied by the perfect quantum mechanical anticorrelations:

Now we make the hypothesis, and it seems one at least worth considering, that if the two measurements are made at places remote from one another the orientation of one magnet does not influence the result obtained with the other. Since we can predict in advance the result of measuring any chosen component of σ2, by previously measuring the same component of σ1, it follows that the result of any such measurement must actually be predetermined. (Bell 1964, p. 195; reprinted in Bell 1987, p. 14)

Otherwise, the result would have, at least in part, been produced by the remote measurement, just the sort of influence that Bell's locality hypothesis precludes. One may also note that if the results had not been predetermined, the widely separated correlated residual innovations thereby implied would be an instance of nonlocality.

Observe that, given locality, the existence of such variables is a consequence rather than an assumption of Bell's analysis. In his writing, Bell repeatedly stressed this point (by determinism Bell here means the existence of the preexisting values that would determine the results of the corresponding measurements):

It is important to note that to the limited degree to which determinism plays a role in the EPR argument, it is not assumed but inferred. What is held sacred is the principle of "local causality"or "no action at a distance."

It is remarkably difficult to get this point across, that determinism is not a presupposition of the analysis (1987, p. 143).


Despite my insistence that the determinism was inferred rather than assumed, you might still suspect somehow that it is a preoccupation with determinism that creates the problem. Note well then that the following argument makes no mention whatever of determinism. Finally you might suspect that the very notion of particle, and particle orbit has somehow led us astray. So the following argument will not mention particles, nor indeed fields, nor any other particular picture of what goes on at the microscopic level. Nor will it involve any use of the words "quantum mechanical system," which can have an unfortunate effect on the discussion. The difficulty is not created by any such picture or any such terminology. It is created by the predictions about the correlations in the visible outputs of certain conceivable experimental set-ups (1987, p. 150).

The second part of the analysis, which unfolds the "difficulty created by the correlations," involves only very elementary mathematics. Clearly,

since at least two of the three (2-valued) variables

must have the same value. Hence, by elementary probability theory,
, and using the perfect anticorrelations (2) one has that
(4) is equivalent to the celebrated Bell's inequality. It is incompatible with (3). For example, when the angles between a, b, and c are 120°, the three relevant quantum correlations qαβ are all ¼, implying a value of ¾ for the left hand side of (4).

Let P be the hypothesis of the existence of noncontextual hidden variables for the EPRB experiment, that is, of preexisting values equation 4 for the spin components relevant to this experiment. Then Bell's nonlocality argument, just described, has the following structure:
(5)      Part 1: quantum mechanics + locality P
(6)      Part 1: quantum mechanics P
(7)      Conclusion: quantum mechanics not locality

For this argument, what is relevant about "quantum mechanics" is merely the predictions concerning experimental outcomes corresponding to (13) (with Part 1 using in fact only (2)). To fully grasp the argument it is important to appreciate that the content of Pwhat it actually expresses, namely the existence of the noncontextual hidden variablesis of little substantive importance for the argument. What is important is the fact that P is incompatible with the predictions of quantum theory.

The content of P is, however, of great historical significance: It is responsible for the misconception that Bell proved that (i) hidden variables are impossible, a belief until recently almost universally shared by physicists, and, more recently, for the view that Bell proved that (ii) hidden variables, while perhaps possible, must be nonlocal. Statement (i) is plainly wrong, since a hidden-variables theory exists and works, as mentioned earlier. Statement (ii) is correct, significant, but nonetheless rather misleading. It follows from (5) and (6) that any account of quantum phenomena must be nonlocal, not just any hidden-variables account. Bell's argument shows that nonlocality is implied by the predictions of standard quantum theory itself. Thus, if nature is governed by these predictions, then nature is nonlocal. (That nature is so governed, even in the crucial EPRB-correlation experiments, has by now been established by a great many experiments, the most conclusive of which is perhaps that of Alain Aspect, Jean Dalibard, and Gérard Roger [1982].)

Concerning the wrongness of statement (i), some historical facts should be recalled. John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, claimed to have mathematically proven that Einstein's dream, of a deterministic completion or reinterpretation of quantum theory (i.e., a hidden-variables theory), was mathematically impossible. Von Neumann's claim was almost universally accepted among physicists and philosophers of science. But Bohmian mechanics is a counterexample, so something had to be wrong with von Neumann's argument. Precisely what was wrong was elucidated by Bell in 1966. Nonetheless, many physicists continued to rely on von Neumann's proof and in recent years more commonly on Bell's inequality to support their rejection of the possibility of hidden variables.

The following is how Bell himself reacted upon learning of Bohmian mechanics:

But in 1952 I saw the impossible done. It was in papers by David Bohm. Bohm showed explicitly how parameters could indeed be introduced, into nonrelativistic wave mechanics, with the help of which the indeterministic description could be transformed into a deterministic one. More importantly, in my opinion, the subjectivity of the orthodox version, the necessary reference to the "observer," could be eliminated.

But why then had Born not told me of this "pilot wave"? If only to point out what was wrong with it? Why did von Neumann not consider it? More extraordinarily, why did people go on producing "impossibility" proofs, after 1952, and as recently as 1978? Why is the pilot wave picture ignored in textbooks? Should it not be taught, not as the only way, but as an antidote to the prevailing complacency? To show us that vagueness, subjectivity, and indeterminism, are not forced on us by experimental facts, but by deliberate theoretical choice? (1987, p. 160)

In fact, Bell's examination of Bohmian mechanics led him to his nonlocality analysis. In the course of his investigation of Bohmian mechanics, he observed that

in this theory an explicit causal mechanism exists whereby the disposition of one piece of apparatus affects the results obtained with a distant piece.

Bohm of course was well aware of these features of his scheme, and has given them much attention. However, it must be stressed that, to the present writer's knowledge, there is no proof that any hidden variable account of quantum mechanics must have this extraordinary character. It would therefore be interesting, perhaps, to pursue some further "impossibility proofs," replacing the arbitrary axioms objected to above by some condition of locality, or of separability of distant systems. (1966, p. 452; reprinted in Bell 1987, p. 11)

In a footnote, Bell added that "Since the completion of this paper such a proof has been found." This proof was presented in his 1964 EPR-nonlocality paper discussed here. (The 1966 paper was in fact written before the 1964 paper, but its publication was delayed.)

Physicists' misconceptions notwithstanding, Bell did not establish the impossibility of a deterministic reformulation of quantum theory, nor did he ever claim to have done so. On the contrary, over the course of several decades, until his untimely death in 1990, Bell was the prime proponent, for a good part of this period almost the sole proponent, of the very theory, Bohmian mechanics, that he is supposed to have demolished.

See also Bohm, David; Bohmian Mechanics; Einstein, Albert; Neumann, John von; Philosophy of Physics; Quantum Mechanics; Realism; Relativity Theory; Schrödinger, Erwin.


Aspect, Alain, Jean Dalibard, and Gérard Roger. "Experimental Test of Bell's Inequalities Using Time-Varying Analyzers." Physical Review Letters 49 (25) (1982): 18041807.

Bell, John Stewart. "On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox." Physics 1 (3) (1964): 195200. Reprinted in Bell 1987.

Bell, John Stewart. "On the Problem of Hidden Variables in Quantum Mechanics." Reviews of Modern Physics 38 (3) (1966): 447452. Reprinted in Bell 1987.

Bell, John Stewart. Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Bohm, David. Quantum Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1951.

Einstein, Albert, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen. "Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?" Physical Review 47 (1935): 777780.

Detlef Dürr ,

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Nino Zanghì (2005)

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Bell, John, and Bell's Theorem

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