Asleep at the Switch

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Spencer was exhausted.  Almost nonstop for the last two days he and his assistant, Jolene, had written, debugged and loaded a novel algorithm into the computer controlling their quantum foam experiment.  This experiment was designed to probe quantum fluctuations at the smallest dimensions possible, the ‘Planck Length.’  The heart of the experiment was a vacuum chamber surrounded by tunable sub-zeptosecond, gamma ray lasers.  These lasers focused incredible power into a minute bit of space at the center of the chamber.  Previous experimental runs had been full of excitement as backscatter, apparently from the ‘foam,’ had been detected. Since then, however, there had been little progress in understanding the source of these signals.   Tonight Spencer would try a new approach.  The new algorithm would attempt to drive the lasers to cancel signals from the quantum foam and thereby measure its properties.  

The lab was quiet.  Only light from glowing instrumentation and the overhead test section monitor illuminated the control room.  Spencer rose from his desk, walked to the far side of the control room and pushed a switch to start  the experiment.  He briefly thought of his assistant Jolene.  He was attracted to her.  He wondered, was it because of her intelligence or because she was so beautiful?  

 After a glance at the test section monitor, the long sleepless hours caught up with him.  He fell into a deep sleep at his desk, and began to dream.  In the dream he fell faster and faster down a long tunnel.  Indistinct at first, and then clearer and clearer a voice called to him.  It was Jolene’s voice.  “Spencer, hello Spencer; do you hear me?  Hold onto my hand.  Quickly, we have no time to spare.”  Instinctively he reached out his hand.  Now he was no longer falling, his downward speed arrested, and he felt or saw, he was not sure which, a vibrating mass of thread-like strings that stretched in every direction.   He was reminded of pictures he had seen of undersea kelp forests.  But here the threads were oriented in all directions, not just vertically like kelp plants in the sea.

Surely the owner of Jolene’s voice couldn’t be her, so he asked, “Who are you?  Where have you taken me?”  Jolene’s voice answered “Spencer, we need to get your attention; so we have stolen your dream as a last resort.  I am not Jolene, but we know you will listen to her voice.  You are at the edge of the universe; you are at the Planck level.  Perhaps this is how you visualized it when setting up your experiment?” Spencer, however, never imagined it to be such a densely twisting, heaving volume of space populated with all these thread like things.  The voice continued, “For now it is enough to say the universe is populated with life that stretches across the galaxies.  Because our life is interconnected instantaneously, as your entanglement theories suggest, we are all aware and all alarmed at what is happening here“. 

“Happening here?” asked Spencer, “what do you mean, happening here?”  Now, Spencer could see no edge of the universe, and he could see no life, but in the distance he perceived a dull blue glow towards which he was being guided.   As they drew nearer this light, Spencer noticed the steady vibrations of the omnipresent strings were strangely dampened, similar to the effect of oil, when poured onto a raging sea will quiet the stormy waves.  He began to see the source of the blue glow was a small brilliant orb, with perhaps hundreds if not thousands of strings wrapping around the object, apparently trying to isolate and constrain it.  

“Spencer” said the voice, “we are at the focal point of your laser apparatus. As you can see, your experiment has seriously weakened the energy of the strings.  The edge of our universe is everywhere.  It is at the scale of the Planck length.  If we reduce our size any further we will find ourselves in dimensions outside our universe. These strings synthesize the reality of our lives.  Just as importantly, they protect us, as a barrier, from the enormous number of threats existing in dimensions outside the universe.  You are looking at such a threat.  This is a seedling universe trying to enter our dimension through weakened string defenses.  A vulnerability you created by cancelling the string energy.  Should this seedling succeed in entering our universe, it will devour all matter and energy at the speed of light.  You must stop your experiment without a moment to lose.”

Spencer was roused from his deep sleep by someone shaking his shoulder.  Jolene was shouting “Wake up, wake up.  Something strange is happening in the vacuum chamber.”  Spencer, with a mixture of disbelief and wonder in his now half remembered dream, forced himself awake.  For some reason he had to get to the master switch across the room to stop the experiment.   Jolene was pointing to the test section monitor.  “Look, a bright blue light has appeared in the center of the chamber.”

“Quick” said Spencer, “we need to stop the experiment now.”  He unsteadily rose to his feet as Jolene looped her hand around his arm helping him rise and keep his balance.   Spencer’s mind was reeling. Was his dream real?   As they half stumbled and half ran across the room to the master switch, the test chamber monitor caught their eyes again.  The bright speck in the center of the chamber began to oscillate in and out of focus.  Jolene stopped in her tracks holding Spencer back.  “Spencer” she said “isn’t that the most incredible sight you have ever seen?”   Spencer began to remember the dream more clearly, and an impending sense of dread crept up the back of his neck.  “Jolene” he said “I don’t know what exactly is happening, but we have to turn the experiment off.”   “Yes” said Jolene, “but let’s look at it for just a moment more.  It’s so beau------

About the Author: 
I feel fortunate to be alive in this period of history when so many of deep mysteries of the Universe are being uncovered.

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Quantum Theories

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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 ... 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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 ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.