Watching the kettle

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I have the crappiest job in the world and I hate it. I am a Zeno programmer – the worst paid, most unchallenging, and no future-prospects job in quantum computer industry. All day long I am watching intensely quantum circuits to slow down the decay of some obscure quantum state. I have no idea what circuits are supposed to do, but I have to focus hard, so meanwhile I cannot be listening to music, read nonsense about successful careers in free web-magazines, chat with Dave over coffee, or browse the quantum net for the latest celebrity holograms. Just watching the damned quantum circuits all day long ...

People often ask me what a Zeno programmer does. Most of them are satisfied with the completely uninformative explanation I give: ‘I’m a quantum-measurement specialist’. They nod, faking some degree of understanding, or try to look impressed and then leave me alone. However, kids are less likely to be fooled, so I had to provide more technical details to my inquisitive six-years-old nephew. ‘You know that a watched kettle never boils. Well, that’s what I am doing: watching the kettle. In quantum mechanics, frequent measurements inhibit the decay of a quantum state. This is called the quantum Zeno effect and is very useful for some quantum algorithms. Skilled quantum programmers manipulate complex quantum states by entangling their brainwaves with the quantum circuits. Zeno programmers are just observers, but our job is vital.’

‘So what happens if you stop watching?’ asked my nephew slightly raising his head from the holographic game he was immersed in.
That is a good question, but one I do not like thinking about.

Although they teach you in the first-year quantum programming course that as observer you cannot affect the state of macroscopic objects, you never stop worrying or … hoping.
I confess that I tried several times to slow down my sister’s continuous babbling about her recent fashion acquisition, but failed. The Zeno effect does not work on slowing down the rate at which your bank account is being depleted either. I guess that in both cases there is too much decoherence involved.

And then there are the scary stories that everyone pretends not to believe, but somewhere deep inside still fears. These are stories about quantum computations going terribly wrong and the quantum programmers’ brains being rewired in bizarre ways; or the programmers disappearing altogether into other dimensions. The stories have been discarded as urban legends by all quantum computing companies. But again, if they were true they would not acknowledge that, would they? Or perhaps the companies invented these stories to keep us from slacking. Who knows?

I, for one, can never completely dismiss these stories because I experienced a most disturbing episode in my second year in university. Sarah was a PhD student working on a joint academia-industry quantum computing project. Her name was well-known in the department and other students were saying that she was the brightest quantum programmer in graduate school. She was a very skilled quantum programmer and was able to manipulate complex entangled states that others would have trouble even writing down with all the bras and kets. She was admired and loved by everyone. I was a little infatuated with her myself, I have to admit. One day there was an accident and Sarah got her brain fried, never to recover again beyond basic motor functions. The doctors said it was the result of overwork coupled with suppressed emotional problems and that it had nothing to do with quantum computers. However, on the university hallways people were whispering a completely different story. As a quantum programmer she would have her brainwaves entangled with the quantum circuits. For some strange reason the wavefunction she was manipulating collapsed unexpectedly and so did her entangled brainwaves.

Was that even possible? No, as there are no such macroscopic effects resulting from the collapse of a wavefunction. Quantum programmers are never affected by the outcome of the quantum measurements they are involved with. However, Sarah’s misfortune resulted in a short-lived scandal exploited by ill-informed journalists with no knowledge of quantum mechanics, the anti-quantum computing extremist group gaining new adepts, the quantum computing companies losing some money, and Sarah’s unfortunate supervisor being fired for negligence.

Long after the scandal had been forgotten I kept wondering: what if there was more to it? Could an experienced quantum programmer like Sarah have been careless and made a mistake? Unlikely. What if something beyond her control had gone wrong? What if someone had failed to prepare the initial state correctly? What if someone had failed to watch the kettle? Then I would feel cold sweat crawling down my temples recalling two undergraduate students working on a small project in the room next to Sarah’s lab. The students were supposed to be doing some simple Zeno programming tasks Sarah had given them. While one was focusing diligently on her measurements, the other was rather distracted. His eyes kept switching from his measurements to his colleague’s rather short summer skirt revealing a pair of long nicely-tanned legs.

That is why I can never afford to stop watching the damned quantum circuits. Even for a moment … what if …

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Quantum Theories

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 ... 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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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 ... Information

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

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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