Flotation and all that Jazz

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The music fades, as the door to the diner swings closed behind him, the beats wash into the ambient noise of the city and become part of the universal hum, “… Fever! What a lovely way to burn”. The lyrics continue to swim about in his mind as he steps somewhat naively into the world, like the tarot fool; as if the stone pavement below his feet doesn't exist.

A curious mood preoccupies him. His senses are sharp and it’s a glorious morning. The crisp morning sun catches him full in the face; its warmth combines with that of the coffee and breakfast he’s just enjoyed, to produce a smile that infectiously ripples through the people on the street heading in his direction. He feels like a sub-atomic particle barreling down an electromagnetic highway, destination unknown. A fog-like discombobulation is stalking him in some precociousness part of his mind, like a wolf through the trees on a dark night. A problem that he has been working on for some time has yet to be cracked. A subconscious part of his mind doggedly searches for that simple and elegant but, as yet, elusive solution. The busy road he is walking down runs parallel to a park that he sometimes crosses on his way to the institute. Looking across the familiar park clearing to his right, he notices a fountain that he doesn't recall ever having seen before. Curiosity forces a right turn in his trajectory, towards the newly built fountain. The fountain is in the middle of the flat grassy rectangle surrounded by Californian White Oaks. “That’s odd”, he says to himself. Approaching the fountain, he notices no tell-tale signs of recent construction. The grass surrounding the base looks established and there is genuinely old looking verdigris staining the brass moldings. The base of the fountain looks like an elaborately decorated bird bath covered in foliage entwining itself around the central column in glorious baroque fecundity, opening out like the petals of a large flower to form the lower bowl of the fountain. Suspended above the main pedestal are three more petal shaped bowls. Curiously, each of the successively smaller tiers seems suspended in mid-air, as if held in place by some magnetic force. Like your common-or-garden water feature, liquid cascades down from top to bottom. In this particular case however, he instantly recognizes the super-fluid dynamics of helium-4. The liquid in each bowl magically flows up the inside wall, up and over the edge and down, to form a pour column at the bottom of the bowl into the next.

Staring at the liquid has an oddly seductive, hypnotic effect as he finds his peripheral field of vision blurring until only the fountain remains in sharp relief, against a blurry watercolor backdrop. Things only get stranger when he and the fountain begin slowly revolving around each other in a kind of celestial dance. In what seems like the blink of an eye, the fountain rushes up towards him as he simultaneously zooms into the main bowl of the fountain. The vertigo subsides … and he is drifting with the bosons.

Another part of him is still staring at the rotating fountain from his usual first person point of view. He is both macrocosmic and microcosmic, and among the bosons he finds himself recognizing patterns that explain helium-4’s curious super-fluid properties, particles swirl around quantum vortices with stately angular momentum. A sudden realization dawns in his mind that he has been given a unique opportunity to see how electrons move freely in a superconductor! This is the problem he has been struggling with for some time. Here in this weirdly wonderful space he could possibly catch a glimpse of that precise behavior for himself. He would, of course, need to find a superconducting material within the fountain itself. He knows the helium is cold enough. “How incredibly unlikely is that, Richard”, he thinks to himself. Smiling ironically, he realizes that this WHOLE scene is unlikely and attempts to look anyway. To have the faintest chance of actually finding the super conducting wire he would have to find a way to zoom out of the microcosmic view to where he could, at least, see differentiation in substance density. Whizzing frantically about at this atomic level, in the crazy hope of stumbling upon atoms of niobium-titanium or lead arranged in a wire-like strand, would make the proverbial needle in a haystack seem highly probable. Nope, he would have to see if this strange world would bow down to his conscious control and allow him to zoom out just enough to be able to see …

Jazzy notes and the sultry voice of Peggy Lea slowly fade into awareness. He smiles to himself in acknowledgement of the full circle the song has created; tying the rich inner stream of consciousness back to this present moment. The LSD induced hallucinations are finally beginning to recede, together with any chance of ever finding that pesky superconductor. Distinctions of inner and outer still blur together in his mind as, reassuringly, he becomes aware of his steady breath and regular heartbeat. Water sloshes up against the inside of the flotation tank as he attempts to kick start his heavy limbs with tentative movements. The music he had chosen to ‘come down’ to gradually increases in volume, “Fever all through the night … Sun lights up the day time …” and as if by some mysterious serendipitous arrangement, a shaft of light appears in the darkness of his cocoon. The lid of the tank swings open. He blinks, as his eyes adjust to the light. Silhouetted in the glare of the opening above is the face of Mrs Eisenhart, the Dean at Princeton’s wife! “Mrs Eisenhart, I um … you’re the last person I expected to see.” She looks at him for some time in her usual inscrutable way, “Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman!”

About the Author: 
I am a software project manager with, I suppose, a predictable nerdy interest in science. My childhood heroes we're Einstein and Newton and recently Feynman. This is my humble homage to Feynman. Hopefully he is not turning in his grave.

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Quantum Theories

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Q is for ... Qubit

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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.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

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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!

O is for ... Objective reality

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S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

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E is for ... Entanglement

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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.

X is for ... X-ray

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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.

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.

T is for ... Tunnelling

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N is for ... Nonlocality

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M is for ... Multiverse

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H is for ... Hawking Radiation

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Q is for ... Quantum biology

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I is for ... Information

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

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.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

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

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F is for ... Free Will

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T is for ... Teleportation

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K is for ... Kaon

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U is for ... Universe

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S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

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D is for ... Decoherence

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

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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.

G is for ... Gluon

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A is for ... Act of observation

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

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

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V is for ... Virtual particles

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J is for ... Josephson Junction

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R is for ... Reality

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B is for ... Bell's Theorem

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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.