Marshmallows

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An owl, a fox and a frog sat around a campfire one lazy summer night, toasting marshmallows. As we know, campfires are known to cause serious discussions about life—as well as burnt marshmallows. 

When Owl hooted, “What is the most important question of all?” none of the others were surprised.

Foxy barked, “The most important question is, of course, ‘Why are we here?’ ”

“No, no”, Froggy croaked, “The most important question is, ‘Where are we going?’”

Owl corrected them both; Owl often corrected others. “The most important question of all is, ‘Where do we come from?’ We can’t know why we are here, or where we are going if we don’t know where we come from.”

After much discussion, outright argument and some loud barks, croaks and hoots, they finally decided that Owl was correct. They first needed to know from whence they had come. Only then could they consider why they are here or where they are going. Owl, Foxy and Froggy agreed to meet the following night after searching for answers. Owl would ask around the sphere of the sky, Foxy would inquire in the world of the earth, and Froggy would seek answers in the realm of water.

Owl was, of course, a night owl. She immediately flew to the tallest tree and called out to the North Star, “Wherrrrrrrre do owls commmme frommmm?”

From light years away, the North Star winked an puzzling answer, “Owls are stardust from cosmic explosions, small unimportant excitations in a quantum field.”

That thought created a severe strain on Owl’s bird brain, but when dawn came, she bravely inquired further. Owl shouted out the same question toward the Sun, “Wherrrrrrrre do owls commmme frommmmm?” 

In a ray of dancing light, the Sun teased with a mysterious recipe, “Owls are a mishmash of quarks, leptons and forces like photons disguised as sunshine, grass and mice.”

The answers threatened to overload Owl’s grey matter. Owl immediately settled in the tree and slept the day away.

Meanwhile Foxy woke in his den among tree roots and then asked the first worm he saw, “Do you know where foxes come from?”&nbs

The worm turned out his answer, “Foxes come from the hard work of the particles in the particles in the soil. Viruses in the bacteria, bacteria in the bugs, moldy fungi arms, and we worms who fertilize the earth,” and then went on to describe in disgusting detail how soil and everything foxes eat is the end product of the meals of worms.

Foxy was not intellectually curious. One overly long, revolting answer was enough. He trotted off to town to steal some more marshmallows. It was Foxy’s turn to bring marshmallows to the campfire.

Froggy had spent the night on her lilly pad. First thing in the morning, after catching a breakfast of mosquitos, she dove into the pond and asked a passing school of fish, “Do you know where frogs come from?” 

The fish darted about, bubbling out answers, according to their grade.

“Cells,” a first grader spouted.

“DNA,”  a second grader murmured. 

“Ripples in space-time,” a third grader gurgled.

“Tiny strings of energy, in the multiverse.” a forth grader burbled importantly.

and then they all darted away. School was over for the day.

Froggy was confused but at least she had tried. She hopped back out and over to the campsite with a jumble of answers to offer to the evening discussion.

As a dark cloud covered the sunset, the three friends gathered close around the campfire. Foxy passed out marshmallows. 

Then Owl, who liked to be first, began, “Owls come from stardust and sunlight.” Owl chose not mention anything about being an unimportant excitation or a mishmash.

Foxy growled, “Well, foxes come from lots of work in the earth.” Foxy felt the details were too gross to describe.

Then Froggy puffed out her chin. “Frogs come from DNA, cells, and, um, I forget what else.” Froggy, like the rest of us, didn’t begin to understand space-time, string theory or multiverses.

“We haven’t made any progress at all,” Owl screeched. “We can’t all come from such different beginnings. It makes me wonder if we are all in the same universe.”

Just then a storm blew in. The West Wind dumped rain, soaked the marshmallows, and put out the campfire. 

In desperation, Owl called, “West Wind, West Wind, who circles the world and knows everything, where do owls, foxes and frogs come from?” 

The West Wind was in a hurry and roared out in one long blast, “In THIS universe you all come from exploding stars making the elements, creating the sun, sending down energy, turning plants green, fertilizing the earth, growing new cells, reproduced by DNA to make owls, foxes, froggies and-everythingggggg-elseeeee.”

“Wow!”, Foxy yelped. 

“Thank you, wise West Wind,” Froggy rasped. 

“Oh, of course,” Owl uttered, wondering if she really understood where owls come from at all. 

The very next night, they gathered around the campfire after a long search for dry wood. Owl opened the discussion, “We’ve, uh, maybe learned where we come from. Now, why are we here?”

“To eat marshmallows,” shouted both Foxy and Froggy. At least that’s what it sounded like. Their mouths were full—and they didn’t really give a hoot.

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Quantum Theories

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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 ... Information

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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Randomness

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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!

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.