Quantum Man

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            Felix Dibble was the night janitor at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. He was on his regular route sweeping the collider tunnel as the evening’s experiments were getting underway. Felix had just stopped to squeegee a spot of raspberry jam off one of the beam pipes and was muttering to himself about “those scientists” when Dr. Hans Gruberman, working in the CERN Control Centre, decided to have a snack. Without thinking, Dr. Gruberman set his baguette down on top of a critical system component. As cries rang out from around the room of “Not again!”, a baguette-induced system failure triggered a rapid loss of magnetic confinement within the collider, resulting in two beams of protons traveling in opposite directions at very near the speed of light colliding at the approximate location of Felix Dibble’s medulla oblongata. After regaining consciousness, Felix stumbled down the tunnel in a daze, not yet realizing that forever after he would always be known as: Quantum Man.
 
Episode 163:
            Quantum Man came screeching down the street aboard his pilot wave runner, arriving at the abandoned warehouse now surrounded by flashing police cars and swarms of officers. He jumped off his ride and quickly approached the police chief. The ground was rumbling everywhere; following slowly after him was Quantum Man’s less-than-trustworthy sidekick Quantum Cat, a half-living, half-dead feline, horrible to behold.
            “Chief, what’s the situation?”
            “Thank you for coming, Quantum Man. The whole city’s been shaking on and off for hours now. At first, we thought it was an earthquake, but we’ve been able to… Ahhh!” At that moment, the chief noticed Quantum Cat approaching. He shuddered and looked away. “We’ve been able to trace the origin of the disturbance to this building, but we haven’t been able to get inside. It’s locked down tight.”
            Quantum Man looked down at his sidekick. “Quantum Cat, see if you can get in through the ventilation system and scope out the situation. I’ll attempt to tunnel through the wall.” But Quantum Cat only hissed, looking surly – and also half-dead. “How many times do I have to apologize for putting you in that box? I was only playing peek-a-boo! How was I supposed to know it would leave you in a perpetual superposition of living death? Never mind, I’ll go myself. Chief, don’t worry; I’ll handle this,” he said, looking up again.
            With that, Quantum Man turned and ran at full speed straight at the wall of the building. He collided with a loud thud and fell over backward. Slowly getting up on his feet, he yelled back to the chief, who was already looking worried, “I’m alright! It’s a probabilistic thing. I’ll get through one of these times.” Quantum Man ran at the wall again and crashed into it once again. Twenty-two similar attempts followed. “Any time now,” he croaked. He ran once more, finally successful in passing through the wall and emerging on the other side.
            Still feeling the effects of his failed attempts, Quantum Man staggered into the spacious interior of the old warehouse, trying to get his bearings. He looked around and saw a large, dark void surrounded by equipment and various consoles in the center of the warehouse. As he approached, he saw a young woman dressed in black and wearing a mask come walking around from the opposite side of the void. Their eyes met and locked onto one another. “Gravity Girl! I should have known you were behind this!”
            “Well if it isn’t Quantum Man come to save the day. But you’re too late. My black hole is already at full strength. If the leaders of the world don’t meet my demands, I will unleash it to devour the Earth!”
            “You’ll never get away with this, Gravity Girl. I thought you would have learned your lesson after I foiled your plans at Solvay.”
            “You won’t defeat me this time.” Gravity Girl picked up a small controller and flipped a switch. Immediately, Quantum Man began being pulled across the room in the direction of the black hole. He grabbed onto a pillar just as his legs were pulled out from beneath him. “Looks like this is the end for you!”
            Quantum Man struggled to maintain his grip to prevent being sucked into the black hole. “I know you’re better than this, Gravity Girl. If we only work together, think of all the good we can do. Stop this and join me. We belong together.”
            Gravity Girl laughed. “Silly Quantum Man. There are no strings that can bind us.”
            Quantum Man was barely hanging on by his fingers, and they were slipping. Suddenly, Gravity Girl looked down and screamed, dropping the controller, for a half-dead cat had just rubbed up against her leg. As the controller hit the floor, it switched off, and Quantum Man fell to the ground. “Excellent work, Quantum Cat,” he said as he got back up. “Black holes are no match for me.” He raised his arms toward the black hole and shouted his famous catchphrase, “By the Power of Planck!” Gravity Girl rolled her eyes and groaned; Quantum Cat slowly shook his head back and forth. Quantum Man didn’t notice. “A little Hawking radiation should do the trick.” Streams of particles appeared to emanate from the black hole, traveling toward Quantum Man’s outstretched hands. As everyone watched, the black hole got smaller and smaller until it completely evaporated.
            Gravity Girl scowled. “You haven’t seen the last of me, Quantum Man!” She ran to a pair of double doors, throwing them both open and stepping outside. Quantum Man had started to give chase but abruptly stopped. “Curses! I can’t go through a double door without interfering with myself on the other side!” He shuddered at the memories. Gravity Girl only smiled then vanished around the corner. Quantum Cat slowly walked to the doors. “Quantum Cat, close one of those doors for me, quickly!” But Quantum Cat only ignored him and walked out. “Quantum Cat? -- Anyone? -- Help???”
 

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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!

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.

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 ... 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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.