Flotation and all that Jazz

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The music fades, as the door to the diner swings closed behind him, the beats wash into the ambient noise of the city and become part of the universal hum, “… Fever! What a lovely way to burn”. The lyrics continue to swim about in his mind as he steps somewhat naively into the world, like the tarot fool; as if the stone pavement below his feet doesn't exist.

A curious mood preoccupies him. His senses are sharp and it’s a glorious morning. The crisp morning sun catches him full in the face; its warmth combines with that of the coffee and breakfast he’s just enjoyed, to produce a smile that infectiously ripples through the people on the street heading in his direction. He feels like a sub-atomic particle barreling down an electromagnetic highway, destination unknown. A fog-like discombobulation is stalking him in some precociousness part of his mind, like a wolf through the trees on a dark night. A problem that he has been working on for some time has yet to be cracked. A subconscious part of his mind doggedly searches for that simple and elegant but, as yet, elusive solution. The busy road he is walking down runs parallel to a park that he sometimes crosses on his way to the institute. Looking across the familiar park clearing to his right, he notices a fountain that he doesn't recall ever having seen before. Curiosity forces a right turn in his trajectory, towards the newly built fountain. The fountain is in the middle of the flat grassy rectangle surrounded by Californian White Oaks. “That’s odd”, he says to himself. Approaching the fountain, he notices no tell-tale signs of recent construction. The grass surrounding the base looks established and there is genuinely old looking verdigris staining the brass moldings. The base of the fountain looks like an elaborately decorated bird bath covered in foliage entwining itself around the central column in glorious baroque fecundity, opening out like the petals of a large flower to form the lower bowl of the fountain. Suspended above the main pedestal are three more petal shaped bowls. Curiously, each of the successively smaller tiers seems suspended in mid-air, as if held in place by some magnetic force. Like your common-or-garden water feature, liquid cascades down from top to bottom. In this particular case however, he instantly recognizes the super-fluid dynamics of helium-4. The liquid in each bowl magically flows up the inside wall, up and over the edge and down, to form a pour column at the bottom of the bowl into the next.

Staring at the liquid has an oddly seductive, hypnotic effect as he finds his peripheral field of vision blurring until only the fountain remains in sharp relief, against a blurry watercolor backdrop. Things only get stranger when he and the fountain begin slowly revolving around each other in a kind of celestial dance. In what seems like the blink of an eye, the fountain rushes up towards him as he simultaneously zooms into the main bowl of the fountain. The vertigo subsides … and he is drifting with the bosons.

Another part of him is still staring at the rotating fountain from his usual first person point of view. He is both macrocosmic and microcosmic, and among the bosons he finds himself recognizing patterns that explain helium-4’s curious super-fluid properties, particles swirl around quantum vortices with stately angular momentum. A sudden realization dawns in his mind that he has been given a unique opportunity to see how electrons move freely in a superconductor! This is the problem he has been struggling with for some time. Here in this weirdly wonderful space he could possibly catch a glimpse of that precise behavior for himself. He would, of course, need to find a superconducting material within the fountain itself. He knows the helium is cold enough. “How incredibly unlikely is that, Richard”, he thinks to himself. Smiling ironically, he realizes that this WHOLE scene is unlikely and attempts to look anyway. To have the faintest chance of actually finding the super conducting wire he would have to find a way to zoom out of the microcosmic view to where he could, at least, see differentiation in substance density. Whizzing frantically about at this atomic level, in the crazy hope of stumbling upon atoms of niobium-titanium or lead arranged in a wire-like strand, would make the proverbial needle in a haystack seem highly probable. Nope, he would have to see if this strange world would bow down to his conscious control and allow him to zoom out just enough to be able to see …

Jazzy notes and the sultry voice of Peggy Lea slowly fade into awareness. He smiles to himself in acknowledgement of the full circle the song has created; tying the rich inner stream of consciousness back to this present moment. The LSD induced hallucinations are finally beginning to recede, together with any chance of ever finding that pesky superconductor. Distinctions of inner and outer still blur together in his mind as, reassuringly, he becomes aware of his steady breath and regular heartbeat. Water sloshes up against the inside of the flotation tank as he attempts to kick start his heavy limbs with tentative movements. The music he had chosen to ‘come down’ to gradually increases in volume, “Fever all through the night … Sun lights up the day time …” and as if by some mysterious serendipitous arrangement, a shaft of light appears in the darkness of his cocoon. The lid of the tank swings open. He blinks, as his eyes adjust to the light. Silhouetted in the glare of the opening above is the face of Mrs Eisenhart, the Dean at Princeton’s wife! “Mrs Eisenhart, I um … you’re the last person I expected to see.” She looks at him for some time in her usual inscrutable way, “Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman!”

About the Author: 
I am a software project manager with, I suppose, a predictable nerdy interest in science. My childhood heroes we're Einstein and Newton and recently Feynman. This is my humble homage to Feynman. Hopefully he is not turning in his grave.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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 ... Information

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

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

R is for ... Radioactivity

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

R is for ... Randomness

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U is for ... Universe

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