Bogo

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      When I was thirteen I was very curious about my father and his work.  When asked what he did, he gave the standard reply: “I work for the government.” He had an office/lab that was completely off limits to the rest of the family.  My cat Bogo got in the room one day and I thought my father was going to send him to the pound!

 

               When I was fourteen, I couldn’t stand the secrecy anymore.  I went into the lab and was amazed at what I saw: lasers, electromagnets, some crazy optical illusion setup that had laser beams pointing at a piece of aluminum with two slits in it. Then there was this box; a box big enough for a human. There were hoses going into it, cables coated in ice. As I began to open the box, I was startled by my father…looking both angry and terrified at the same time. Then my dad calmly asked me “What are you learning about in physics this year?”  I told him about the inverse square law, Kepler’s laws, and Newton’s equations.

 

               My father told me his “Government” job dealt with strange physics that seemed to break all the “normal” rules.  He called it “Quantum Physics.”

 

               That summer my father’s lab consumed my thoughts and so I spent much of my time researching this “quantum physics.”  Dad was right.  This was very strange stuff indeed, but it only seemed to affect the tiny world of electrons and particles. I inevitably found the famous “2 slit experiment” in a book, which I recalled from my father’s lab.  But it was difficult for me to grasp.  A particle can act as a particle AND a wave?  Nonsense, I thought.  But that one experiment proved it and seemed to suggest that a particle can be in two different places at the same time!  Does that mean that a human could, as well?  So far, the books said “no.”

 

               As I was leaving the library that day I spotted my father at a payphone.  I don’t know why he was there, but I eluded him and went straight home. Somehow I was going to bust that lock open.  I knew I had time to zip home on my bicycle and try to get into my dad’s lab again.  So, I got home as fast as my Mongoose would take me.  I hurried in the house, down the stairs to his lab, but found the padlock open, and the door cracked.  I paused, got my nerve, and busted in…

 

               There was my dad, on the phone.  His face went white.  He said into the phone, “Get back NOW, you’ve got 16 minutes,” and hung up. “Dad, I JUST saw you at a payphone. Now you are here. Please….trust me with what is happening.  I’ve been at the library day after day, looking into this quantum whatever it is you work on, and at best I can grasp half of it.”

 

               My father slowly began explaining.  It seems that on his own, he had figured out how to let things larger than electrons behave just as if they were electrons. This is what the government did not know.  He was afraid of how it would be used.  “Dad,” I said, “what is the box?”  He stood pacing, looking at his watch.  Finally, I heard the front door open upstairs, and fast footsteps fumbling down the stairway.  In walks…my father.  “45 seconds,” he said. “Son, I will be back to explain in just about 1 minute.  Both of my fathers walked into the box pulling the door shut.  After about 20 seconds, machines turned on, ice built up on some cables, several lasers beamed straight at some sort of crystal on the front of the box….then it all stopped.

 

               The door opened, and out walked my dad….one of them.  And so the explaining began.  He had figured out a way to apply that spooky quantum mess to objects MUCH larger than electrons.  He had been using himself.  I caught him trying to test if there was a distance barrier.  So far there was not.  The only catch was that he could not “split” for longer than one hour.  He learned this from a prior experiment with a teddy bear…at the hour mark, one bear vanished, the other was destroyed.  Immediately, I said “I want to try it.”  Before I could even finish I got a stern “Absolutely not!”   Can I try Bogo? Once again, I got a firm “No!”  So then I said something so drastic, to this day I can’t believe I said it: “I’ll tell Mom.”  The look on my father’s face was one of disgust, and immediately I knew I crossed the line.  But amazingly, it worked.  I got Bogo, put him in the box, and sealed it up.  My dad reluctantly started the splitting process.  After that, out came two Bogos!  It was like witnessing a miracle.  Until one of the Bogos flew out the door, up the steps, and out through the cat door.  Sheer panic.  “Close the door!” my dad said.  I began to cry.  My dad looked at me and said, “We have one hour to find that cat.  Put the other Bogo back into the machine, NOW!”  And we were off, tracking down my other Bogo.  Finally we were down to 8 minutes, we spotted him in a neighbor’s tree.  I tried to climb, but Bogo climbed higher.  I was in the tree 7 minutes and then…poof.  He was gone.  We rushed back down to my father’s lab.  I began to open the box, and my father yelled, “STOP!”

 

               “Son, do you want to KNOW your cat is dead, or would you rather believe it COULD be alive, but can’t prove it?”  “I remember from the library,” I said, ”Shrodinger’s Cat.” We found a way to get food and water into the box without seeing Bogo.  It’s been 1 month now. I prefer to believe Bogo is still alive.

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Quantum Theories

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.