What actually is the definition of locality and non-locality? Does non-locality in Quantum Mechanics mean however far you separate 2 entangled atoms in space, the 2 atoms can still influence each other? Doesn't non-locality mean action at distance? If not, what's the difference between them?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you talking quantum field theory where there are operator valued fields defined in space and locality is about operators determined by spacelike separated regions commuting. Or nonrelativistic quantum mechanics where the wavefunction is not defined on space (it is defined on configuration space)? Please clarify. $\endgroup$
    – Timaeus
    Aug 16, 2015 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ look at physics.stackexchange.com/q/54792 $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Aug 16, 2015 at 3:58

1 Answer 1


The short answer is yes, in quantum mechanics quantum non-locality refers to the apparent instantaneous propagation of correlations between entangled systems, irrespective of their spatial separation. In quantum field theory, the notion of locality may have a different meaning, as pointed out already in a comment.

Details: The notions of locality and non-locality in Quantum Mechanics have been originally defined in the context of the EPR controversy between Einstein and Bohr on the phenomenon of quantum entanglement.

Basically, the general "principle of locality" (Wikipedia ref.) requires that "for an action at one point to have an influence at another point, something in the space between the points, such as a field, must mediate the action". In view of the theory of relativity, the speed at which such an action, interaction, or influence can be transmitted between distant points in space cannot exceed the speed of light. This formulation is also known as "Einstein locality" or "local relativistic causality". It is often stated as "nothing can propagate faster than light, be it energy or merely information" or simply "no spooky action-at-a-distance", as Einstein himself put it. For the past 20 years or so it has been referred to also as the "no-signaling" condition.

The phenomenon of entanglement between quantum systems raised the non-locality problem first noted in the EPR paper: A projective measurement on a quantum system at one space location instantly collapses the state of an entangled counterpart at a distant location. Quantum mechanical non-locality refers to this apparent entanglement-mediated violation of Einstein locality.

The remarkable thing about quantum non-locality, however, is that it actually does not imply violation of relativistic causality. Although entanglement correlations are affected instantaneously, they cannot be harnessed for faster-than-light communications. The reason is that the outcome of the local projective measurement is itself statistic and cannot be predicted beforehand. If the same kind of measurement is performed on multiple copies of identically prepared pairs of entangled systems, the overall statistical result is that locally both systems conform to the statistics prescribed by their respective local quantum states. The "spooky action-at-a-distance" of the distant measurement gets wiped out in the total statistics.

There is already a host of related questions on Physics.SE. See for instance Quantum entanglement and spooky action at a distance and similar.

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    $\begingroup$ So entanglement correlation is truly a violation of Einstein locality, but it cannot be harnessed for faster-than-light communication because the outcome of measuring large amount of spins are statistical. Right? But what if I just take one pair of entangled system, can I measure one particle to know the outcome of the other particle? Is this kind of communication faster than light? $\endgroup$
    – Lynn
    Aug 20, 2015 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Yes on both accounts. Entanglement correlations do seem to violate Einstein causality, this is what Einstein pointed out in the EPR paper. You can measure one particle and find that if you measure the 2nd particle the result correlates with the first measurement. This has been confirmed experimentally in a variety of settings by now. But the problem is that if you try to reproduce the situation for communication purposes, quantum statistics makes it impossible to ensure that you obtain the same result as before on the first particle. Then after accounting for statistics, the violation is gone. $\endgroup$
    – udrv
    Aug 20, 2015 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @udrv could you please recommend some further reading on why nonlocality after accounting for statistics does not violate Einstein's causality? $\endgroup$
    – gen
    Aug 23, 2017 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ @gen Not sure what level you prefer, but for a good textbook presentation see for instance theory.caltech.edu/~preskill/ph229/notes/chap4_01.pdf. $\endgroup$
    – udrv
    Aug 27, 2017 at 16:36

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