Quantum Disentanglement

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The science building was deserted late on that Saturday night. Inside, Stephen had his latest girl, Theresa, on his arm. Her long, dark curls bounced in time with her step, and the click of her Saturday night heels echoed down the hallway. This was their second date. She was a classics major, not a physics grad student like himself. He hoped that would help make him more mysterious to her. Perhaps his jargon would fire her with all the mystery and power of the flames of Samhain. Assuming she went in for that sort of drivel. She flashed him a smile of promise. She was lovely. He unlocked the door to his lab and ushered her in. He, himself, had built the device cloaking the annoying racket of the old vacuum pump. Computer stations sat interspersed throughout counters of equipment – pipes, cables, lasers, electromagnets. The dim room was filled with a gentle hum and the firefly embers of blinking power lights.

"Like Christmas. Or a temple," said Theresa, her brown eyes sparkling. In such a dark place, she must have sat at just the right angle to catch and reflect the blinks, thought Stephen. Whatever. It worked for him.

"I expected it would be interesting,” she said. “But not so…mysterious.” She smiled again, the lights catching her earrings and pendant. “Go on, Stephen. You were saying? About the space thing?"

"The idea is simple in theory, but making it happen is all pretty new – ground breaking even,” he said, taking her elbow, leading her towards a cloth-covered table in the centre of the room. “We take two entangled subatomic particles. They’re correlated. You know what that means, right?”

He continued without waiting for a response. He hoped she wasn’t rolling her eyes. It had been known to happen. “So, if you change one, the other changes. You speed this one up, the other speeds up even if it is across the room, across the country. Space becomes meaningless. You can entangle entire light fields, and then transmit many photons together." He paused and gazed at the lab equipment that had been so cleverly developed to measure even the tiniest specks of matter and their journeys through distances both vast and microscopic. He touched it reverently.

She said, "Ah. The Fates, connecting lives, spinning them out through invisible threads.”

Stephen, in the habit of ignoring that about which he knew little, continued.

"The applications are endless: encrypting and disrupting secure information passing through the internet, and even, in the near future, for transporting matter through space." He wasn’t so sure about that last part, but it made for a good story.

"Like The Fly," said Theresa, her voice filled with awe. She fingered her pendant.

"Yes," said Stephen. He moved in closer to Theresa and reached past her to switch on the photon count equipment. It bathed the room in a soft green light. He straightened, gently touching her necklace at her throat.

“This is pretty.” He left his hand at her clavicle.

“Thank you.” She lifted her necklace so the light danced along it. A wheat sheaf, a full cornucopia, and a sickle were encircled by a wreath of leaves. “Harvest symbols. ‘Theresa’ means ‘harvester’.”

“How very productive.” He reached out for her. She stepped back.

“Everything in its own time,” she said. “Both the sowing and reaping. To everything, turn, turn…”

“Fine, maybe later then.”

“Anyway, can you disentangle them? The photons?” She said, looking up into his eyes.

“Maybe,” he said. He talked on about qubits, filters, crystals, detectors, and lasers, while glancing surreptitiously down her dress. Was she mesmerized? He wasn’t sure. There was often a fine line between boredom and adulation when it came to physics.

"Can you show me? I mean, the photon stuff?"

"Some. Maybe more, very soon. Here's the exciting part: see that table and cloth? On there, we can project 3D holographic images of our research. We just finished the prototype. We're going to give it a test run tomorrow, once everything’s charged. Then we can just put on that headset and, if it works, we’ll see the whole process." He pulled his gaze from Theresa's cleavage over to the device, an equal object of desire. Its indicator lights blinked in answer.

"In fact, I think it's ready now." His fingers itched to touch it. "You want to give it a whirl?"

"Oh, yes." She nodded. The sickles at her ears danced. “Entanglement.”

He pressed a button. The room's hum increased.

"We’ve only one headset so far. Let me set it up for you." He yearned to be first, but waiting would display his gallantry.

She bent over the table and reached for the headset while Stephen admired her backside until she sat. He set the experiment to run, and then stood by, one hand on her shoulder, the other on the device. Silver arced from her fingers to the headset. It didn’t seem to bother her or the machine, so he let it go for now. He couldn’t see what she saw, but her exclamations of wonder boded well for later. She looked up and removed the headset.

"I think you’d better take a look at this. Could be a disentanglement." A blue laser flared unexpectedly. In the light, Theresa grinned, her eyes suddenly hawk-like. He took the chair and headset.

At first he saw nothing. Then blurs became shapes. Three shapes resembling dim, hunched stars. They moved slowly, rhythmically, connected by silver filaments. Lines of connection radiated from them. He zoomed in on one.

Through the lens, an old lady held a pair of pearly shears in one gnarled hand and lifted a thread with the other. She tugged it taut. He felt a sharp pull through his being, as if all within him was imploding, aligning into the sub-sub-subatomic space-within-endless-space. Until, with a flash of silver, the crone snipped.

About the Author: 
Lynne is a health research consultant and fiction writer in Ottawa, Canada, where she lives with her husband, teens, and physics-defying cats. She has had short fiction published in a variety of markets, and won two honourable mentions in contests along the way. She also writes and edits academic materials.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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!

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

X is for ... X-ray

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.