(Photo | iStock)
In the last column, “Artificial Intelligence — Part 4 of 4 — Society Impact,” we explored AI’s impact on societies and government. Now we venture into the Twilight Zone with quantum physics and technology.
“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t” — Physicist Richard Feynman
If you don’t understand quantum mechanics, you’re in good company. This is heady stuff and even the brightest minds in science are still trying to grasp the vast new world(s) of quantum physics. Feel free to reread as needed, I know I’ve had to over the last several decades of deep diving into the subject. FYI, quantum “physics”, “theory” and “mechanics” refer to the same thing — quantum theory — and are used interchangeably.
Simply put, quantum theory describes the nature and behavior of matter and energy as particles and waves at the subatomic level, where classical physics no longer applies.
Quantum theory’s roots began over a hundred years ago. It can be traced back to 1894 when German physicist Max Planck studied radiation from a glowing object and why it changed through the color spectrum from red to blue as the temperature increased. When he treated the energy as a particle unit in his mathematical formulas, they made sense, or were quantifiable. He named the particle a “quanta.” These quanta had both wave characteristics (which aligned with classical physics) and those of a particle.
His “Black Body Radiation Theory” shook the world of physics back then and we’re still grappling with its implications a century later.
Danish physicist Niels Bohr developed the model of the atom and theorized that discrete electrons revolved around the atomic nucleus in stable orbits or energy levels. He developed the theory that electrons behaved as a wave or a stream of particles depending on what you attempt to measure. An electron was really a “cloud of probabilities.”
Among Einstein’s great achievements was his work on the photoelectric effect, which he won a Nobel Prize for in 1921. He theorized a light beam was a collection of discrete wave packets (photons) and not a wave propagating through space. Physicist Louis de Broglie built on Planck’s Black Body Radiation Theory, Bohr’s atomic model and wave/particle theory and Einstein’s photonic theory with his “Principle of Wave-Particle Duality.” He theorized that both energy and matter can behave as if they were made of either particles or waves.
Unbeknownst to Einstein at the time, his photoelectric effect theory would help to define quantum theory. Much to his chagrin, quantum theory did not fit into any classical physics model, which led him to fight against it. Einstein finally relented when every proof he put forth to disprove it failed and his peers kept reinforcing the theory with stronger arguments, which recent experiments have proven correct.
“GOD Does Not Play Dice with The Universe” — Einstein Initially Defies Quantum Theory
Finally, Werner Heisenberg added a perplexing twist to quantum theory: It’s impossible to simultaneously measure a subatomic particle’s precise position and momentum at the same time or in fact any two or more measurements. The more precise you measure one value, the more imprecise the others become. Classical physics does not work at the quantum level and this measuring impossibility is what spurred Einstein’s quote above.
So that’s where the weirdness starts… when you try to observe this “quanta” object and look for a wave, then it’s a wave. When you look for a particle, it’s a particle. If you seek its position, then you can’t measure its momentum and vice versa. The observer affects the probability of what’s measured. Now’s a good time to grab your cuddly bear.
Einstein Called Quantum Mechanics “Spooky”
Albert Einstein struggled to accept what the theories and math were proving, especially “spooky action at a distance.” There’s a truly weird — and proven — characteristic of quantum mechanics called “entanglement.” Let’s break down this weirdness.
How to Entangle Two Particles — most entanglement experiments use photons as the entangled particles, the easiest particles to entangle, and which are easy to set the initial quantum states.
What is a Quantum State? — “A quantum state provides a probability distribution for the value of each observable, i.e., for the outcome of each possible measurement on the system.” (Wikipedia.org)
How Do You Know They’re Entangled? — Remember, an observer affects the quantum state of a particle such as a photon. If two photons are entangled, and you move one away from the other a foot, a mile or across the known universe, when an observer measures or observes a property of one photon, it immediately changes its state at four orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light to that of its entangled photon partner. Hence, the “spooky action at a distance.” To give a sense of scale, our Solar System is 7.44 billion miles wide. If two photons were at opposite ends of our Solar System, it would take a quantum state about 2.77 hours to reach its entangled partner. If on opposite poles on earth, it would appear to be virtually instantaneous.
Why Einstein’s Hair Was So Crazy — This spooky action defies classical physics. Nothing moves faster than light… now that absolute is defunct.
Quantum Mechanics Requires an Infinite Number of Parallel Universes
A brilliant young physicist, Hugh Everett, had an epiphany in 1957 while a grad student at Princeton. He put forth the idea that quantum mechanics only works if there’s a multiverse, or an infinite number of parallel universes. This theory solves some of quantum’s weirdness. For example, when you, the observer, decide to measure the position of a particle like a photon, which, before you measure it is a fuzzy clump of all possible positions, you create the same number of universes as all possible positions, including the current one where you’ve chosen the one possible outcome.
Insane, right? Now let’s take a real-world example. Let’s say you’re deciding which burger joint to go to. According to Everett’s theory, the moment your mind creates a problem with multiple outcomes, let’s say Carl’s Junior, In-N-Out and Burgerville, you create new universes for each possible choice and then you shift or quantum-tunnel into that new reality.
Most physicists, such as Stephen Hawking, agreed with Everett’s theory with a notable exception, Niels Bohr. Prof. Bohr was part of the brat-pack of scientists who birthed quantum theory. He could not come to grips with, say, 7 billion potential observers on planet Earth, potentially creating 100’s of billions of other parallel universes and subsequently Earths and Everetts every few seconds.
One More Step into The Twilight Zone: You Are Made of Probabilities and Emptiness
You are made of atoms. Atoms are made of sub-atomic particles and, for example Hydrogen, is about 99.9999999999996 percent empty space. An electron is, in fact, a cloud of probabilities of either a particle or wave. The observer changes the very nature of the atom. Hence, you are empty space filled with probabilities.
This concept of our existence, and that of our universe, as emptiness filled with nothing more than probabilities, goes back thousands of years. In Buddhism, specifically Mahayana Buddhism, all things are empty as they lack any inherent essence or existence. Do we exist because we choose to and to observe other probabilities as people and our material universe? Sorry if this wakes you up at 3am in sweat-soaked sheets.
Next Month’s Column: Part 2 of 2 — Quantum is Weird… and About to Rock Our World
Fluff up your crushed teddy bear and stay tuned for Part 2. In our next article, we’ll explore recent technology advances using quantum mechanics and its application in computing, communication, cyber-security and more.
One last mind-tingling nugget: in recent years, several scientists have put forth the theory that our minds are quantum computers. Are we space-time travelers who use our minds to quantum-tunnel into other universes?
Find Out More
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics, bit.ly/Brian-Greene-What-Is-Quantum-Theory, bit.ly/Hugh-Everett-Multiverse, bit.ly/Live-Science-Wacky-Universe, bit.ly/Dalai-Lama-Quantum-Buddhism, bit.ly/Brains-Are-Quantum-Computers, bit.ly/Are-Brains-Quantum-Computers
Preston Callicott is CEO of Five Talent Software, Inc. based in Bend, Oregon. His hope is writing that articles such as this one will allow his mind to stop waking him up at 4am with “aha’s” and “oh-my’s” about the massive impact tech has on our collective future.