Cogito, ergo sum

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An icy wind cuts against my face as I step from the airport curb and get into a cab.  The cab nudges into rush hour traffic and I stare at the wet snow splattering against the window.  I am already regretting that I agreed to make this trip.

A long time ago—before things fell apart for him--Dr. Grant had been my mentor.  I consented to his request that I visit him mostly because I felt sorry for him, for all the promise he had squandered, and for what little he had left. 

But I was also a little curious.  Time and circumstances had dragged Dr. Grant far down the back slope of his life.  Even so, a mind as brilliant as his might still be capable of one last dazzling pirouette.

I was at MIT doing graduate work when I first met Dr. Grant.  He was a towering figure in particle physics then, an innovative thinker with an unparalleled grasp of mathematics. He was often referred to as the next Stephen Hawking.  So I was thrilled when he agreed to be my doctoral advisor.

Thursday afternoons we would meet in his small windowless office to discuss my thesis.  The office was sterile and functional, a bookshelf along one wall, a blackboard along the other.  The only personal touch was a sign that hung on the wall behind his desk.  He told me that he had picked it up at a gag shop.  The sign said:  “I THINK, THEREFORE I AM.  I THINK.”

After graduating, I secured a teaching position at Stanford.  Dr. Grant and I stayed in touch at first.  But as the years went on, he changed.  His papers, once considered bold and innovative, began to drift more and more into questionable propositions.  In his later years, he came to be viewed as a kook.  He left MIT under duress and ended up at Indiana State.  I lost contact with him after that

Then, last month, I ran into him at a conference in St Louis.  I walked into an auditorium for a session on quantum physics.  Dr. Grant was seated in the back row.

During the Q&A, Dr. Grant raised his hand. 

“My finger is comprised of millions of molecules.  Each of those molecules is comprised of atoms which, in turn, are comprised of subatomic particles.  According to quantum physics, there is a non-zero probability that one of those particles is on Mars, is there not?”

“Until we collapse the waveform by observing it,” the speaker replied.

“And until that happens, there is a probability that more than one subatomic particle is on Mars.  In fact, there is a probability that the entire finger is on Mars, right?”

“We observe it here.  Therefore the waveform has collapsed.”

“But maybe I only think I’m observing it here,” Dr. Grant said.

I met Dr. Grant in the hallway after the lecture.  In spite of his disheveled appearance, he assured me that things were going well. 

“I feel like I’m doing the best work of my life right now,” he said, “I’m really excited about where this is headed.”

He put his hand on my shoulder.  “You were always one of the few who really understood my work.  I want to share this with you. You must visit me as soon as possible.”

Dr. Grant’s appears disoriented when we meet in his office.  I worry that his mental faculties may be slipping.  But once he goes to the whiteboard, I realize that his mind is as sharp as ever.

“We’ve been looking at the wrong end,” he says.  “We should be looking at quantum physics from an holistic perspective.  The anomalies exist because we haven’t been looking at all of the components.  More specifically, we haven’t been looking at ourselves and the role we play as observers.”

“If the entire universe is Schrodinger’s cat,” he continues, “then we assume that, because we exist, the cat is alive.  But what if some other observer outside our frame of reference observes the cat as dead?  Our minds aren’t designed to grapple with that kind of ambiguity.  We have to trust the math.  That’s where you come into play.”

 “You’re one of the few people able to fully understand my math.  So now I need you to validate what are certainly the most important calculations of my lifetime.  Perhaps everyone’s lifetime.”

“The key,” he continues, “is a set of state vectors that apply, not at the particle level but at the macroscopic level, encompassing the entire universe.”

Picking up a marker he begins scrawling on the white board, explaining at each step what he was doing, stopping from time to time elaborate on a point.  I struggle to keep up at first, my mind unable to accept some of the concepts but unable to refute the math.  Eventually, the light comes on.

“Astounding!” I exclaim, “This truly is revolutionary!”

“Well… let’s go one step further.”

He quickly erases the board and begins scrawling again. 

“Let’s start with this state vector,” he says.

He is writing furiously now, not talking, only looking over occasionally to confirm that I am still following.  Finally, he stops with a flourish and puts the marker down.  I continue working through the calculations, not quite sure I understand the conclusion they seemed to lead to.

“This can’t be,” I stammer, a confused look on my face.

He hands me several sheets of paper with all of the calculations neatly printed by hand. “I need you to go back to Stanford and prove that I am wrong.”

“But…if this is true, we, our universe everything…” I stall.

“We don’t exist,” Dr. Grant finishes the sentence for me. 

Outside Dr. Grant’s office building, I walk briskly to where the taxi is waiting.  I’m running late, but I should have time to make my flight.  I think everything will be okay.  I think.

About the Author: 
Lou Kummere is a technical writer living in Phoenix.

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Quantum Theories

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.

I is for ... Information

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

U is for ... Universe

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.